Thursday, July 7, 2011

What Will Governor Moonbeam Do?

Identity politics took a central place in the political discourse of our nation during the last presidential election.  It seemed to me that this did more to reinforce racial division in the country than it did to heal it. I suspect it may have even served to undo some of the progress that has been made over the past couple of decades. One of my eleventh graders that year said to me one day that she never felt divided from anyone because of race, until she witnessed the national tension during that campaign season. She discovered unity is more difficult  when people are determined to carry out the dehumanizing practice of sorting themselves and others into competing victim groups.

This brings me to the issue of identity politics, and its influence on education as we know it.

As many of you are no doubt already aware, a piece of legislation is about to hit the governor's desk in California that, as the San Francisco Gate puts it, "would make the state the first requiring public schools to include the contributions of gays and lesbians in social studies curriculum".  It further explains that the bill "adds lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people as well as people with disabilities to the list of groups that schools must include in the lessons. It also would prohibit material that reflects adversely on gays."

So, if Jerry Brown signs SB48, the good news is English teachers will have to stop ignoring Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde.

Wait a minute...  They are already in the curriculum!

And if since the bill also covers historical figures with disabilities, history teachers will have to stop leaving out FDR.

Wait...    Never mind. He's already there too.

We remember writers, mathematicians, scientists, and historical figures, not because they are token figures of a certain group, but because of their influence for good or ill.  We read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein because it is a great novel, not merely because a woman wrote it.  We study FDR's presidency because it was unique and historically important, not simply because he was in a wheelchair.  While someone's ethnicity, disability, or gender will contribute to who she is, it is not her only definitive characteristic. Even for historical figures whose identity is very important, such as Frederick Douglass or Martin Luther King, great accomplishment and historical influence are still the primary reasons why we remember them.

Many suggest that the debate over homosexuality in America is no different from the questions of race that our nation faced over the past century. Even if, for the sake of argument, we concede this point, this legislation still remains impractical in light of certain realities in the classroom.

Nobody who has ever spent significant time in a school can deny that kids are pretty good at dividing themselves along arbitrary lines, whether it be race, class, fashion, glasses, or grades.  I have seen students treat one another better after meaningful personal interaction.  I have never seen a student decide that he is going to quit making fun of someone because a great author or historical figure had the same trait as the "other".  A student who bullies his classmate because said classmate is "a brain", for instance, isn't going to change his behavior because Einstein was "a brain" too. In fact, he is more likely to write off Einstein as well as his classmate, and go on his merry, anti-brain way.  I have never seen  a token minority author or historical figure serve to eliminate racism, nor a lesson on a token woman cure anyone of misogyny.

As someone whose curriculum consisted mostly of old books written by people who are now dead, I found the question of prejudice to be a very relevant one for my classroom.   If students cannot see the human dignity of those living human beings sitting next to them in class, they aren't going to be able to see it in fictional characters created by long-deceased authors. After all, can there be a greater divide between people than between the living and the dead?  Students must learn to see the inherent human dignity of those around them before they will be able to see it in people and characters from the past. Mark Twain showed us this more than a century ago: it is the lesson that we learn from reading Huckleberry Finn.  It is the time they spend on the river together that allows Huck to see Jim as a man and a friend, and not merely as a slave.

Tolerance is not a false pretense that people have no significantly different beliefs, backgrounds, and ideas.  It is not a hypocritical assertion that we are all the same.  It is a learned skill. It is, essentially, a form of patience that allows us to live and work with people whom we do not entirely understand, or with whom we fundamentally disagree, without losing our sanity or our awareness of each others humanity.

A curriculum that emphasizes differences and token representatives of politically fashionable classes of human beings does more to undermine a culture of acceptance in schools  than it does to create one. Students need no reminders that there are stark differences among them. Drawing attention to labels provides those unneeded reminders, and reinforces the false and dehumanizing notion that students cannot relate to anyone who does not have some arbitrary identifying characteristic in common.

The bill is also intended to add the history of the LGBT movement, but prohibits any material that could reflect poorly upon it.  This bears more resemblance to propaganda than it does to an honest approach to history. If similar legal injunctions existed with respect to study of the movement for racial equality, many activities of groups such as the Black Panthers and the more controversial comments of Louis Farrakhan would be forbidden material.  The fact that some people working for racial equality behaved badly has not undone the appreciation most people currently have for the progress our nation has made in race relations over the past five decades.  Human history, like the human beings in it, is full of behavior that "reflects badly" on someone. We can learn as much from those as we can from the moments when heroic people did something gloriously right.

In charity, I can only hope that those who are promoting this bill are unaware of the practical problems outlined above.

If they are aware of them, one needs to ask why they think a curricular emphasis on the LGBT movement will will change the value students place on their classmates or on Walt Whitman's literary achievements.  I shall deal with that question later.

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