Queer/of Color Students and the Importance of Education History
by Jess Clawson - April 20, 2015
This commentary discusses why, if education policymakers and practitioners do not have a grounding in education history, they cannot adequately meet the needs of queer/of color students. Education history in indispensable to policymakers, administrators, and practitioners in adequately educating marginalized students.
Many of the central conversations in educational scholarship and policy today revolve around concern over oppression in various forms: bullying, achievement gaps, teaching children in poverty. Historical study is vital to understanding how schools have participated in marginalizing students as well as their potential to be institutions of liberation. An ahistorical comprehension of education policy leads to myopia and prevents educators from asking and answering important questions about why schools function the way they do, particularly in regard to marginalized students. Some populations of students have been the targets of deliberately exclusionary policies, particularly around students of color and queer students. Without a nuanced understanding of the struggles to overcome these policies and practices, how can educators chart a course that uplifts all students? It is the role of education historians to help education policymakers understand public needs and to guide education leaders to best serve their students.
Education history can centralize those who have been marginalized in education settings. As Karen Graves has argued, If you do not have a history, your very existence is questioned" (Graves, 2012). A crucial function of education history is to tell the stories of people who have been left out of the historical discourse. Queer students, for example, are often considered an ahistorical community. This contributes to institutional silencesschools ignore or do not know how to discuss queer studentsand to a sense of isolation for those students. Queer students may not understand that they are inheriting an important legacy of resilience and activism if their schools do not help them see it. Further, this leads to an absence of significant education policy and practice in improving queer students lives. Too many school workers dismiss gender non-conformity and other queer student concerns. If they see queerness as a form of contemporary rebellion instead of a deep and abiding current in human experience, it is easier to dismiss queer children. This causes pain to queer students and legitimizes anti-queer discourse in the larger culture, as evidenced by Tennessees proposed Dont Say Gay bill, which highlights the potential for harm in schools when policymakers conceive of queer identities as deviant. Jackie Blounts scholarship shows how US public schools have always been sites of gendered education, and how gay and gender-nonconforming teachers have been targeted as unfit to teach because they could not model correct behavior to their students. These were explicit education policies, carried out by administrators, to educate students in heterosexuality and squelch queer identities (Blount, 2005). Educational leaders and policymakers cannot overcome this deep-seated tradition without seeing its roots, but a clear understanding of how schools have operated to oppress queer students can bring educators to the forefront of queer advocacy.
Furthermore, in a time when states like Texas and Arizona are cutting people of color from their curricula, especially in history, education historians must take the lead. We are uniquely suited to showing not only how people of color have been critical to transforming US education over time, but also how the project of education has always been harmed when those in leadership positions seek to exclude, marginalize, or ignore. Conversations about racial segregation in the US have revolved around schools. Indeed, the landmark US Supreme Court case in favor of integration, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, was about schools. Historians of education can trace the post-Brown development in racial inclusion and exclusion, leading teachers and policy makers to an increased understanding of how schools can best confront these problems today. James D. Anderson has shown how contemporary communities of color can gain confidence in their cultural and intellectual competence by examining their history. Research shows that there is a gap in standardized achievement test scores between black and white students, and Anderson posits that if considered without historical context, black communities can feel that their plight is hopeless and that the gap results from some deficit in their families, not from a flawed education system. However, Anderson points out that before the test score gap, educators debated the literacy gap, the elementary school attendance gap, and the high school completion gap, all of which black students have successfully overcome (Anderson, 2003). Communities, policymakers, and educational leaders must understand the deeper context so that they can understand the importance of their community values, the context for their policies, and the lives of the students in schools.
Studying the history of how oppression has worked in schools tells us how schools have operated to educate people in correct behaviors, including gendered and racial expectations. When the hidden curriculum is put into historical context, its implications are laid bare. A clear understanding of oppression through the study of education history has direct implications for education leadership, policy, and practice. Those making leadership and practice decisions can understand their role in the context of creating a more equitable society. We can apply the lessons learned from queer student visibility to all children: Whose needs are being prioritized, and whose are being diminished? How can education policy continue or alter the course of marginalized students?
Because education prioritizes the welfare of students, educators should be primarily concerned with how to bring the most marginalized students to the forefront of pedagogical and policy considerations. Historians of education are critical to these conversations because of their ability to show policymakers what has and has not worked in context, to guide school leaders in their understandings of their student bodies, and to help reach a mutual understanding between communities and their educators.
Anderson, J. D. (2003). The historical context for understanding the test score gap. Unpublished manuscript.
Blount, J. M. (2005). Fit to teach: Same-sex desire, gender, and school work in the twentieth century. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Graves, K. L. (2012). "So, you think you have a history?" Taking a Q from lesbian and gay studies in writing education history. History of Education Quarterly, 54. 467.