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Revising the New York State Social Studies Curriculum


by Thomas Sobol - 1993

Discusses the need to revise New York State's social studies curriculum to reflect the nation's diversity in a fair way, presenting a less biased, more realistic view of history. The curriculum should cultivate multiple perspectives, teach about common traditions, include examples of many peoples, and tell the whole story. (Source: ERIC)


Of all the issues that attend education in America today, including such varied matters as standards, assessment, condoms, homosexuality, and the rise of the religious right, none is more volatile than that of rate. Ask a group of people of diverse backgrounds what they think should be done to pursue more effectively the nation’s six educational goals, and the reactions will range from blank stares to polite professional debate. But ask them whether blacks or Hispanics have been dealt with fairly in the school curriculum, and you may find yourself in the midst of an emotional free-for-all. No other issue so opens the sores of the American experience; no other issue so taps the well of submerged feeling. No wonder that recent controversies about multicultural education have been more political than pedagogical.


Most of us would probably agree that what has lent the-claims of multiculturalism in education their strength and urgency in recent years is changing demographics. The nature of our population is changing. We are becoming more ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse. Demographers tell us that by the year 2020 one of every three people in the United States will be a member of what we now call a “minority.” According to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, more than 600,000 people immigrate to this country annually. In New York City one in four under the age of ten is the offspring of a non-English speaking immigrant parent. By the middle of the coming century, almost half the population of the United States will be Spanish-speaking.


These numbers are growing at a time when attitudes about diversity have changed. Not too long ago it was not supposed to matter where your forebears come from. What we were about was building a new society, one in which what mattered was “what you could do,” not “who you were.” Our social ideal was the melting pot; the schools’ task was to promote assimilation. As Ellwood P. Cubberly wrote near the turn of the century:


Everywhere these people [immigrants] tend to settle in groups or settlements, and to set up here their national manners, customs, and observances. Our task is to break up these groups or settlements, to assimilate and amalgamate these people as a part of our American race, and to implant in their children, so far as can be done, the Anglo-Saxon conception of righteousness, law and order, and popular government, and to awaken in them a reverence for our democratic institutions and for those things . . . which we as a people hold to be of abiding worth.1


Assimilation worked well for many, but not for all. As James Banks has written, it


shaped a nation from millions of immigrants and from diverse Native American groups and prevented the United States from becoming an ethnically balkanized nation. The assimilationist ideal also worked reasonably well for ethnic peoples who were white. However, . . . [it] has not worked nearly as well for ethnic peoples of color.2


Many people had preferred not to “melt” to begin with, but to maintain their separate identities. Many others, chiefly those of color, found that they were not allowed to “melt” if they tried—that positions of power and privilege were denied no matter what. Accordingly, a competing ethic gained strength, that of cultural pluralism, which calls for maintaining cultural identity while participating in the political and economic mainstream.3 Today we must accommodate not only a diversity of origins but a diversity of views.


We are not always dealing well with this diversity. In our schools, the rate of failure is higher among people of color than among whites. In our economy, we are developing a seemingly permanent underclass, skewed by race. In our streets, we tear at each other’s vitals—as incidents at places like Crown Heights and Los Angeles unhappily remind us. Furthermore, we live in a small and multicultural world. If we wish to communicate effectively with the majority of the world’s peoples—who are not white and who do not speak English—we must know more about how they see the world, how they make sense of experience, why they behave as they do. Today, as never before, there is need to cultivate a deeper understanding of who we are as a people at home and how we relate to our neighbors abroad. And whether those of us more firmly rooted in the traditions of Europe accept that need or not, millions of young people of color—boys and girls, young men and women, African Americans, Latinos, Asians, some whose families have been Americans for generations, some who have arrived here only recently in pursuit of an American dream that has not yet lost its allure—come to our schools each day, read their history and listen to their teachers, and want to know who they are, where they came from, what the nature of this society of which they are a part is, how they reconcile the distinctiveness they feel with the common identity most of them so want. One can debate multiculturalism endlessly in the boardroom and the faculty lounge, but when the young people show up in the morning and sit down and look at you expectantly, you had better do something about it.


I was confronted with that reality when I assumed my present responsibilities in 1987. For some time spokespersons for what are still called “minority” groups had been complaining that the history and culture of their peoples were inadequately reflected in our curricula. There was also a ruckus about my appointment because some legislators believed that they had been promised that the next commissioner would be black, and I was clearly not that. I did what most of us would do in such a circumstance: I asked people to sit down with me and tell me what was on their mind. In July 1987 I convened a task force with the title “Minorities: Equity and Excellence.” Its members were chiefly minority people with experience in education and related matters—a college president, three university professors, two superintendents of schools, a respected physician, and other educators and child advocates—and it was chaired by Hazel Dukes, president of the New York State Branch of the NAACP. I asked the task force to review the curriculum materials prepared by the State Education Department to see if they were free of bias and if they faithfully represented the pluralistic nature of our society. And the task force reported no on both counts. Change is needed, said the task force, change toward a “curriculum of inclusion.”


Now when you ask a group of people whose views have not often been consulted in the past to tell you what they think, what you get, understandably, is not only what they think but what they feel. In this case, the task force expressed its feelings in strong language; for example, this from the executive summary:


African Americans, Asian Americans, Puerto Ricans/Latinos, and Native Americans have been the victims of an intellectual and educational oppression that has characterized the culture and institutions of the United States and the European American world for centuries. . . . Task force members and curriculum consultants found that the current New York State Education Department curriculum materials, though improved recently, are contributing to the miseducation of all young people through a systematic bias toward European culture and its derivatives.4


The report was submitted in July 1989. Unfortunately, its language offended some who, I think, might be inclined to agree with many of its recommendations, taken dispassionately. I endorsed the central conclusion of the report—that we should be more inclusive in our teaching of the history and culture of all the major groups that comprise American society—but I could not endorse the report’s rhetoric nor all its specific recommendations. Nevertheless, much of the mainstream press attacked the report with a vengeance—often presenting it, despite the facts of the case, as official policy. The New York Post editorial, “Sobol’s War on Western Values,” said, “pronouncements from the office of State Commissioner of Education Thomas Sobol are beginning to sound more and more as if they were written by Angela Davis.“5 You must understand that all of this came as a mild surprise to me; I did not consider myself at war with Western values. All I wanted was to know what people thought, and to give that thought opportunity for public expression.


Please understand that the task force that wrote the “Curriculum of Inclusion” report was not asked to write a curriculum, nor did it. After a period of review during which we consulted with teachers and curriculum experts throughout the country, in 1990 the Board of Regents appointed the Social Studies Syllabus Review and Development Committee. This committee consisted of twenty-four eminent scholars and teachers in the social sciences and history from academia and the schools, representing a variety of viewpoints and racial/ethnic groups. Among its members were Nathan Glazer, Edmund Gordon, Kenneth Jackson, Jorge Klor de Alva, Ali Mazrui, Virginia Sanchez Korrol, and, in a special “consulting” role, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. The committee’s charge was to examine the state syllabi and to recommend changes in them, and in the teaching of them, that would promote students’ understanding of one another, our culture, and the world.


In June 1991 the committee submitted its report, entitled One Nation, Many Peoples: A Declaration of Cultural Interdependence. As you would expect, the report was much more scholarly in tone and illustration than was its predecessor, although the central message was much the same. Among its recommendations were these:


That the present New York State social studies syllabi be revised to provide more opportunities for students to learn from multiple perspectives and to remove language that may be interpreted as racist or sexist. That the following principles for teaching and learning guide the implementation of these changes:


a. The selection of subject-matter content should be culturally inclusive, based on up-to-date scholarship in history, the social sciences, and related fields.


b. The subject-matter content selected-for inclusion should represent diversity and unity within and across groups.


c. The subject-matter content selected for inclusion should be set within the context of its time and place.


d. The subject matter selected for inclusion should give priority to depth over breadth.


e. Multicultural perspectives should infuse the entire curriculum, prekindergarten through grade 12.


f. The subject-matter content should be treated as socially constructed and therefore tentative—as is all knowledge.


g. The teaching of social studies should draw and build on the experience and knowledge that students bring to the classroom.


h. Pedagogy should incorporate a range of interactive modes of teaching and learning in order to foster understanding (rather than rote learning), examination of controversy, and mutual learning.6


The report went on to suggest guidelines for making these principles real in the classroom—by developing curriculum materials, changing assessment practices, providing staff development, and so on. There were some companion pieces by individual committee members, including two “dissenting opinions,” by Professors Jackson and Schlesinger. While acknowledging the need for “a varied and challenging multicultural education,” Professor Jackson essentially decried the negative tone of the report, and argued the need for more attention to the virtues of our common democratic culture. Professor Schlesinger also acknowledged that “our students should by all means be better acquainted with women’s history, with the history of ethnic and racial minorities, with Latin American, Asian and African history. Debate, alternative interpretations, ‘multiple perspectives’ are all essential to the educational enterprise. I welcome changes that would adapt the curriculum to these purposes? However, he rejected what he regarded as the underlying philosophy of the report, namely, that “ethnicity is the defining experience for most Americans, that ethnic ties are permanent and indelible, that the division into ethnic groups establishes the basic structure of American society.” He urged more respect for the ideals of European culture and more attention to what unites us as a society.7 These dissenting opinions, as we shall see, came to dominate much of the discussion that ensued.


Meanwhile, understand once again that what we had before-us was still an advisory report, not an official recommendation by the commissioner or a policy decision by the Board of Regents. During the weeks that followed receipt of the report, I wrote and submitted my own recommendations to the board—adopting most of the report’s substance, incorporating the gist of the dissenting opinions, and casting the whole in my own language. The Regents approved those recommendations, and we are now working to put them into effect. A working group of teachers and scholars has been assembled to plan and make the actual revisions in the syllabi, and the concomitant changes in our program of assessment. The group is co-chaired by Jorge Klor de Alva of Princeton and Linda Biemer of the State University of New York at Binghamton. We expect to be piloting new material in the schools beginning next year.


We have found it very difficult to get people to focus on what we are actually doing, as opposed to what we have been advised to do. For that reason, I think it important to summarize the nature of our work.


In making my recommendations to the Regents, I said that:


What I propose is a curriculum which will tell more of the truth about more of our history to all of our children. It is a curriculum based on fact, faithful to historical proportion, and grounded in the democratic and moral values of our common American culture. It is a curriculum which informs young people fully of the ideals and struggles that have shaped our nation, which gives young people a reason for believing that they have a stake in its success, and which prepares young people to participate effectively in an increasingly diverse society and an increasingly shrinking world.


If we are to have such a curriculum, there are at least two things that we must do. First, as the report “One Nation, Many Peoples” maintains, “special attention will need to be given to those values, characteristics, and traditions which we share in common.” Our children must be grounded in the American ideals and values which are the envy of so much of the world—the rule of law, freedom of speech, minority rights, tolerance of dissent, respect for individuals, and more. They must know the facts of our history and understand the trends of our history and be familiar with the great documents of our history. Whatever their background, they must understand themselves to be Americans, fully participant in the ongoing American experiment, sharing a common American destiny. We must teach our common culture.


And the second thing that we must do is make sure that all of us Americans are included. Without “making up facts” or “rewriting history,” we must tell the story of all the major groups which comprise American society today. The United States of America is not only a unique democracy; it is one of the most ethnically diverse countries on earth. In order to understand ourselves and one another, we must learn about our difference-as well as about our unity. We must be careful, as Professor Glazer has warned, not to make ethnic groups more rigid or permanent than they are. But so long as they have relevance for so many of our people, their story, as part of the total American story, must be told.8


I then asked the Regents to:


1. Reaffirm their long-standing policy of promoting an understanding of both our common democratic values and our multicultural origins, along with a global perspective on our own and other societies.9


2. Authorize staff to continue to review and revise, where necessary, the state’s social studies syllabi, consistent with certain guidelines, including the following:

ESTABLISH BALANCED GOALS


Syllabi for the study of United States history and culture should seek to develop:


understanding and appreciation of the democratic and moral values of our common American culture;


understanding and appreciation of the history and culture of the various major ethnic and cultural groups which comprise American society;


understanding of our society’s unique strengths and its relationship to other societies in an increasingly interdependent world;


students’ capacity to think critically about societal issues, drawing on historical knowledge, contemporary information, and points of view from many sources. (p. 5)

EMPHASIZE UNDERSTANDING


As it reviewed existing syllabi, the Social Studies Syllabus Committee found that “it is never possible to ‘fit everything in. ’ " The information-dominant approach to the social studies curriculum, the committee believes, is doomed to failure. Rather, the committee recommends that the emphasis be shifted “from the mastery of information to the development of fundamental tools, concepts, and intellectual process.” The emphasis is on depth, not superficial breadth; on the power of analytic thought, not memory alone.


This emphasis should be encouraged. The goal is to help students become readers and users of history and the other social studies. For this purpose less, properly pursued, is often more. Those who jump to extremes will deride a curriculum “without facts.” But no such curriculum is intended. There is a basic core of factual knowledge and understanding of history and geography that all students in our society should acquire. The revised syllabi should identify this core, and provide for its inclusion in the curriculum. But at least equal attention should be given to the themes and concepts needed to give factual knowledge coherence and structure, and to experiences that will develop in students the intellectual competence that is desired. As the report says, “The social studies should be seen not as some dreary schoolroom task of fact mastery to be tested and forgotten, but as one of the best curricular vehicles for telling the story of humanity in a way that motivates and inspires all of our children to continue the process of responsible nation-building in a world context.” (pp. 5-6).

CULTIVATE “MULTIPLE PERSPECTIVES”


The syllabi should be so written as to help students perceive phenomena from multiple perspectives. Such perspectives should be introduced gradually, in keeping with students’ developing maturity. As Gordon and Roberts write in their “Reflections” on the report, “In modern societies the changing conception of what it means to be an educated and intelligent person includes our capacity to entertain and understand phenomena from perspectives different from our own, on our way to arriving at wise judgments and the reconciliation of differences.” Life and history are complex, and it is the mark of an educated person to see things in their multifaceted complexity. We must not permit those who want only simple answers to frustrate this educational purpose. From the point of view of Europe, Columbus did indeed “discover” America—and it was an event of profound importance not only for Europe but for the world. Yet at the same time, from the point of view of the indigenous Americans who occupied these shores before Columbus’s arrival, it was Columbus who was the stranger—their world was perfectly well known. Why do we find it so hard to entertain these two views simultaneously?


The people of a nation as diverse as ours, living in a world that seems to shrink each year, must know more about one another than we do. (Greater knowledge of one another will not guarantee comity, but it may well be a necessary precondition.) The capacity to take multiple perspectives, to understand the other person’s point of view, can help us live well with one another while also developing our intellect. (pp. 6-7)

TEACH OUR COMMON TRADITIONS


The committee’s report understandably focuses on a perceived need in existing social studies programs—the need to he more inclusive of the experience of all major groups comprising American society. However, the committee is aware that this attention to our diversity must be balanced with attention to our unity. Thus, the report says that “special attention will need to be given to those values, characteristics, and traditions which we share in common.” It asserts that “the program should be committed to the honoring and continuing examination of democratic values as an essential basis for social organization and nation-building.” In their “Reflections,” Co-Chairmen Gordon and Roberts write, “We recognize that nation-building, especially in so diverse a populace, requires that we give attention, not so much to our differences as to our commonalities."10 In his “Dissenting Opinion,” Schlesinger observes:


What has held Americans together in the absence of a common ethnic origin has been the creation of a new American identity—a distinctive American culture based on a common language and common adherence to ideals of democracy and human rights, a culture to which many nationalities and races have made emphatic contributions in the past and will (one hopes) make emphatic contributions in the future. Our democratic ideals have been imperfectly realized, but the long labor to achieve them and to move the American experiment from exclusion to participation has been a central theme of American history. It should be a central theme of the New York social studies curriculum.11


These comments should be heeded. Our unity and our diversity are not opposites; they are necessary complements of each other. Both should be taught.


Understanding our national history and character necessarily entails an understanding of the political, legal, and cultural roots of our society in England, in Europe, and in the traditions of the West. The facts are that we are essentially an English-speaking nation. The democratic ideals and values to which we still aspire, and which are the envy of so much of the world—the rule of law, freedom of speech, minority rights, tolerance of dissent, respect for individuals, and more—derive from British political and legal traditions. As Jackson writes, “The dominant American culture might have been German or French or Chinese or Algonquin or African, but for various historical reasons the English language and British political and legal traditions prevailed. Whether or not we would have been better off if Montcalm had defeated Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham is beside the point.“12


This common tradition, the tradition that unites us and makes our diversity possible, must be taught to all our children. We must be honest, and acknowledge that we have not always lived up to our ideals-egregiously not, in some cases. And we must show how this tradition has been further shaped and enriched by Americans from all continents. But as we make our curriculum more inclusive, we should not lose sight of what we are including people in. (pp. ‘7-8)

INCLUDE EXAMPLES OF THE EXPERIENCE OF MANY PEOPLES


As the report says, “The Committee agreed that to reflect a multicultural perspective, the syllabi need not attempt to provide an encyclopedic list of every contribution by every person and group. Rather, as the emphasis shifts from an information-based to a conceptual curriculum, the syllabi should offer many appropriate examples of the experiences of many peoples and groups. . . . The syllabi and other materials should provide teachers with several examples, drawn from different peoples, as appropriate to each topic.” The point, again, is not to achieve encyclopedic coverage, but rather to ensure two conditions:


That all students, whatever their race or ethnicity, find in the curriculum reason for believing that they and their ancestors have shared in the building of the country and have a stake in its success, and


That all students, whatever their race or ethnicity, learn more about those who are different from themselves. (p. 8)

TELL THE WHOLE STORY


No society, no people, no culture escapes the grace and the stain of human nature. Greece, for all its glory, denied citizenship to women; Rome, for all its grandeur, turned to decadence and decay. As much is true of other great civilizations, of Africa, Asia, India, and the Americas, each with its own instances of attainment and struggle. No culture has a corner on the market for enlightenment and justice; none embodies fully the qualities of ignorance and cruelty.


Social studies syllabi should be written so as to reflect these truths. Our history and the story of our many peoples must reflect not only our achievements, but our shortcomings; not only our triumphs, but our pain; and not only our failures, but our successes and ideals. This is not to say that all cultures or civilizations are “equal”; but it is to say that students are capable of understanding the complexity of human nature and the human experience, and an education that does not help them do so sells them short. (p. 8)


These were most of the substantive guidelines. Finally, I asked that the Regents authorize staff to continue the work of preparing curriculum materials, revising our program of educational assessment, and providing appropriate staff development experiences. (pp. 14-16)


In order to prevent any misunderstanding-of these recommendations, I took the unusual step of making explicit what was not recommended. Among other matters, there were these:


NOT recommended: Trashing the traditions of the West.

RECOMMENDED: Asserting the centrality of our Western political and legal values and traditions.


NOT recommended: An Afrocentric curriculum.

RECOMMENDED: A balanced curriculum, one that develops understanding of both our unity as one society and our differences as sons and daughters of diverse ethnicities and cultures.


NOT recommended: Ethnic cheerleading and separatism.

RECOMMENDED: Telling students the whole truth about history, with each group seen in both its blemishes and its virtues; and promoting greater unity in our common democratic American mainstream, partly through greater understanding of our differences.


NOT recommended: Distorting history.

RECOMMENDED: Fidelity to historical fact and proportion, teaching more of the truth about more of our people to all of our children.


NOT recommended: A curriculum of self-esteem,

RECOMMENDED: A curriculum that promotes understanding and intellectual competence.


NOT recommended: A study of American history based on ethnicity or culture alone.

RECOMMENDED: Attention to ethnic and cultural differences as one necessary way of understanding American history and society today not as the sole perspective taken. (p. 12)


The Regents approved these recommendations, and they are the basis for the work that we are doing now.


We have not been riding a long crescendo of acclaim. From the time the “Curriculum of Inclusion” report first appeared until the present, much of the press and many people in public life and academia have assaulted our motives, our plans, our intelligence, our good faith. Time magazine wrote that “American kids are getting a new—and divisive—view of Thomas Jefferson, Thanksgiving, and the Fourth of July.“13 The Wall Street Journal, in an editorial called “Curriculum of Diversion,” opined that “little is likely to be accomplished until educators stop chasing the latest fad and get back to the basics.“14 The New Republic, under the heading “Mr. Sobol’s Planet,” said that “what this report subtly does is degrade the notion of factual truth in the American curriculum.“15


One of the most persistent critics has been American Federation of Teachers leader Albert Shanker, who has devoted at least a half dozen of his weekly columns to criticizing our work. One of these columns, to give you the flavor, is entitled “Multiple Perspectives.” As I have said, we want to help students understand that life and history are complex, that the same phenomenon may be regarded from different perspectives, that a truly educated person is one who can transcend to a degree the limitations of his or her own background or experience and see things from another angle, that understanding how other people think and feel is a useful skill in a world in which we must all get along with one another better. This is how Mr. Shanker treats the topic:


“Multiple perspectives” is an excellent phrase. It sounds open-minded, which is what the pursuit of knowledge should be. But when you put the concept into the classroom, what does it mean?


For a teacher presenting a historical event to elementary school children, using multiple perspectives probably means that the teacher turns to each child and asks the child’s point of view about the event. To an African-American child this would mean, “What is the African-American point of view?” To a Jewish child, “What is the Jewish point of view”? And to an Irish child, “What is the Irish point of view?”


This is racist because it assumes that a child’s point of view is determined by the group he comes from.16


It is hard to know how to deal with a perversion such as that.


What has compounded the misunderstanding and misrepresentation of what we are doing is l’affaire Leonard Jeffries. Professor Jeffries’s colorful rhetoric and extreme points of view have been an inviting target for ridicule and obloquy, and the media have obligingly responded by making him a figure larger than life. Unfortunately, his views and the publicity they have received have made it difficult for those inclined to seek a moderate, balanced position to conduct the debate on a thoughtful plane.


Our own involvement with Professor Jeffries was indirect. He served as a part-time consultant to the task force that wrote the “Curriculum of Inclusion” report (at the request of the members of the task force), and he wrote the first draft of sections of that report. When his views and tone became known, the Regents and I had nothing further to do with him. He was not a member of the more recent committee that produced the “One Nation, Many Peoples” report, and he has not been associated with our work in any way since 1989. In 1991, after his public remarks about Jews persecuting blacks, I wrote in New York Newsday that “Jeffries’ comments are an affront to civilized society. His diatribe against Jewish people shivers the spine. His treatment of Diane Ravitch was juvenile and loutish. His characterization of all whites as oppressive ‘ice’ people would be ludicrous if it did not provoke an approving response among some of his audience.“17 I circulated copies of the letter widely. Nevertheless, his name continues to be associated with our work.


Galling as this circumstance surely is, its most damaging effect is to divert attention from what we are actually trying to do, and to make it difficult to engage the legitimate, complex issues on which reasonable people are not yet in agreement. Indeed, I have come to think that at least some of the criticism that our project and others like it have received has this as its intended effect. I will not engage in paranoid theories of grand conspiracy. But how does one account for the intensity of the anger, the prevalence of the misconceptions, the insinuations and outright charges of bad faith, the apparently willful distortions and misrepresentations of what we are doing? I have not given you samples of my-worst “hate mail.” But even many of the critiques that come cloaked in the garb of erudition have a stridency, a shrillness, a disproportionate ferocity that suggests people who are panicked. I think that many people are genuinely frightened by the changes occurring in our society, and they resent them. They see individualism losing ground to group identity. They see a breakdown of values they hold dear, and they fear a loss of control: from people like themselves—cultivated upholders of a cherished civilization—to others who are relatively uneducated, poorly spoken, crude, and disrespectful. The matter may be more cultural than racial, but race is clearly involved. The curse of American history is yet upon us.


But the American dilemma need not becomes the American tragedy. We have it within our power to make of this continuing American experiment a model of the richness that diversity can bring. At present, our country is the envy of much of the world—not so much for our wealth and power as for our political democracy, our economic system, our freedom of expression. In these ways we are already showing others how to live. By embracing our diversity, by all of us learning more about our differences, accepting them, and moving on to emphasize our common humanity, our shared values, and our common destiny, we can show other societies in this teeming global village how to flourish in a world that suddenly shrank before differences among tribes were eroded.


We cannot go back, so I suggest that we move forward in this way. At bottom, we all know that to know more about our neighbors does not diminish us. We all know that we can be patriotic Americans and be proud of our family heritage as well. We all want a society in which differences are respected but all are joined in common cause. We all want to realize the potential riches of a culturally and ethnically diverse society. In the end, I would submit, the debate is not philosophic but practical: How do we get there?


All of us have a part to play, of course. For openers, I would urge a lowering of the rhetoric all around. A little charity, a greater willingness to listen, even a bit of old-fashioned civility would do much to soothe the debate. And then we have to avoid the extremes. We cannot pretend that the ethnic and cultural differences in our society do not exist, even if they are not eternal. And at the other end, we cannot act as if they mean everything. Once we get to a sober middle ground and are ready to listen to one another, perhaps we can make some progress.


And that is where you come in—you, the readers of this article. I hope that among you are writers and teachers of history, as well as teachers and school administrators and education policymakers. As we continue to define ourselves as a nation, we need you to help us understand our past, to comprehend its workings in the present, to realize its power to help shape the future. We need your scholarship, your insight, and, I hope, your wisdom. The details of the debate will not be settled for a long time; we can all look forward to a period of constructive controversy, with many opportunities for papers, lectures, symposia, debates, position statements, and all the other gambits of academic and public life. But I hope that our agreement on the larger matters will ensure that the debate will indeed be constructive. To that end, I offer for your consideration this excerpt from a statement on history education issued in February 1991 by the Organization of American Historians:


A primary goal of history education is to foster mutual understanding and respect among people of different backgrounds and conditions. . . . The multiple objectives of history education can be served by curricula that afford students the opportunity . . . to study both the history of the larger society and the history of minority groups and non-Western cultures. . . . A successful history education should help students understand what binds Americans together while simultaneously promoting respect for American’s pluralism and diversity. We hope it will contribute to realizing a common future of reconciliation and equality across the boundaries of race, ethnicity, gender, and class.


Portions of this article appeared in “Understanding Diversity, ” an article by Thomas Sobol, Educational Leadership, Volume 38, November 1990, pp. 27-30. These portions are reprinted with permission of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 95 Number 2, 1993, p. 258-272
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 100, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 9:55:01 PM

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