Sunday, August 8, 2010

Reality check, part two

Teaching history is rarely what most people imagine. Many people decide to teach history through some interest in the subject, naive sense of ease, or some other reason unrelated to activism and intellectual pursuit. A district in-service last week roused my ire and disbelief in a way that I have not felt in years. During the in-service I turned to a co-worker and said, "I thought we were beyond this kind of shit." Apparently I was wrong.

The teaching of history for patriotic advancement and nationalistic purpose is a long established blemish on my profession. Many social studies teachers were first a coach, and second a teacher. History books have traditionally been written from a perspective that promotes military service, national sacrifice, and blind patriotism. The unsavory bits of American history have been ignored and passed over, in preference to jingoistic tales of valor. Lately, there has been a serious push to improve our curriculum, teach truth, objectivity, and critical thinking over recitation, wars, and heroes.

The Medal of Honor curriculum was unveiled to us last week. All US History teachers in the district were taken from their planning, and placed in an all day blast from the past. We received a grant for this curriculum, probably because of our fearless superintendent. According to the mission statement, the curriculum teaches the "ideals of courage, sacrifice and selflessness embodied in the Medal of Honor, and their application in daily life to promote character development and responsible citizenship." Responsible citizenship meaning military enrollment. Courage, sacrifice, and selflessness through military worship.

I could have asked the obvious. Where does this fit into our pacing guide? Where does this fit into district curriculum? Where does this fit into state and national standards? When will I have time for this? No, those questions dodge the obvious. I asked why are we worshiping the military? What is the real value of this with our students? What is the opportunity cost of teaching blind patriotism over citizen activism? How do I teach about a Vietnam veteran's valor to my Viet kids? Where is the high order and critical thinking? This is very basic. I thought we were beyond this?

In the curriculum, one lesson asks the students to color countries where medals of honor were won. Names of conflicts were given, students had to find the country. Included was the "Philippine Insurrection, Mexican Incident, Cambodia, and Guatemala" to name a few. The "Philippine Insurrection" took place after conquering the islands in the Spanish-American War in the early 20th century. The motive was clear, as stated by Senator Albert Beveridge:

Mr. President...The Philippines are ours forever...And just beyond the Philippines are China's illimitable markets. We will not retreat from either... We will not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustee, under God, of the civilization of the world... The Pacific is our ocean... Where shall we turn for consumers of our surplus? Geography answers the question. China is our natural customer... The Philippines give us a base at the door of all the east... Senators must remember that we are not dealing with Americans of Europeans. We are dealing with Orientals.

The Philippinos had a different idea. Independence. We killed over half a million in order to maintain our base for trade with Asia. It was ok though, we were only "dealing with Orientals..." The "Mexican Incident" refers to our occupation of Vera Cruz in 1914. It was a way to influence the Mexican government for more favorable trade. It crippled their economy, killed hundreds, and led to the eventual overthrow of their president. Cambodia and Guatemala are Cold War conflicts where over a million people perished.

My concern with the lesson was, that by simply coloring in those countries, and knowing that the men who won medals of honor there were good Americans, what does that teach our students? That those wars were good? That we were righteous? I know what it doesn't teach, citizenship. Questioning your government, and understanding your history are indelibly linked. The curriculum and lesson teach students how to be unquestioning nationalists. If this lesson was proposed in Europe, the people would label it militaristic. The curriculum does not promote responsible citizenship, it teaches jingoism. It is a disservice to my students.

Another lesson taught Toby Keith as a primary source around the Iraq invasion, labeled Operation Iraqi Freedom. There was no anti-war voice.

Frighteningly, many teachers sat there and ate it up. I fear for our students. If we teach self-sacrifice and citizenship through personal valor in questionable wars, what damage is that doing to our students and country? Why couldn't it tell the story of ordinary men and women who stood up and challenged sexism, racism, and abusive government? What is the opportunity cost? Should I teach my students to be activists, and stand up for what is right? Or should I teach blind patriotism? It was a reality check that reminded me of the tremendous power that I can wield, and the seriousness and importance of what I teach. It made me remember why I became a teacher.

No comments:

Post a Comment