One Sentence Does Not Define a Curriculum

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One Sentence Does Not Define a Curriculum

The idea behind the disproportionate response to this one passage seems to have been that any statement that recalls the way slavery was presented to America’s children until the 1960s — as a benevolent institution whose dissolution subjected the South to unfair punishment — must be decried as a menace that threatens a return to old assumptions. This exemplifies a snag in argumentation that I observe frequently. Too often the idea of the slippery slope is presented as a given, rather than as an assertion requiring evidence. The idea that this one sentence in an otherwise rather ordinary document must be treated as so fearsome implies that we teeter always upon the possibility that students will be taught a vision of slavery out of “Gone With the Wind.”

But I’m not sure I see actual evidence of that, or anything close to it. I certainly do not detect maximal nationwide enlightenment about slavery. But I do perceive that America has become infinitely more informed about slavery than it was 50 years ago. Signature works such as “Roots” (the 1977 original of which was remade seven years ago), “Amistad,” “12 Years a Slave” and others have imprinted the horrors of slavery on the public consciousness in a way that was all but unknown in popular culture before the 1970s. There now exists a massive literature about slavery, both popular and academic, written by both white and Black authors, with key works amply covered in the national press. The widespread adoption of the term “enslaved person” rather than “slave” is testimony itself to the degree to which awareness has changed.

Given that the Florida curriculum proposal overall takes its cue from exactly this seismic change in awareness over its hundreds of directives in more than 200 pages of social studies curriculum, whence the idea that a single sentence threatens to return us to the racist ignorance of the past? To propose such an idea is, in its way, to dismiss the work so many have done to change minds. It also subverts constructive engagement for the theater of politics.

There are, to be sure, other things in the curriculum that also need fixing. It refers to “acts of violence perpetrated against and by African Americans but … not limited to 1906 Atlanta Race Riot, 1919 Washington, D.C., Race Riot, 1920 Ocoee Massacre, 1921 Tulsa Massacre and the 1923 Rosewood Massacre.” The “by” here has justifiably attracted attention, in implying that brutal riots such as those on the list occurred in part because of violence from Black people themselves. That is so nonsensical an idea that I assume the work group is referring to later riots in which Black people committed acts of violence in protest against acts by white vigilantes and/or policemen. And as such, the passage should be fixed. The group was given only a few months to compile the curriculum, and errors like that happen in haste.

But in general, if I had been handed this curriculum before the outcry, my impression would have been that it was going to offend the anti-woke crusaders of the right, not critics on the left. It is such a standard-issue coverage of what slavery was that it is, again, almost surprising that Ron DeSantis would want it to go out under his name. I would have processed that single “benefit” sentence as a tip of the hat to an idea, hardly uncommon among Black people thinking about our history, that even slaves exercised a degree of agency and human strength amid the horror of the condition imposed upon them.

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