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July 05, 2005

History Lessons: In Philadelphia

James Oakes: July 5, 2005

What do Lynne Cheney and Cecilia Cannon have in common? I assume everybody knows who Lynne Cheney is, but who’s Cecilia Cannon? She’s an assistant superintendent of the Philadelphia school system, and she was recently quoted in praise of the newly imposed requirement that all high school students in the City of Brotherly Love be required to study African and African American history in order to graduate.

So what do Cheney and Cannon have in common, other than their shared interest in education?  Both believe that the reason for studying history is to make students feel good about themselves.

Cheney hit the big time about a decade ago when she launched a pre-emptive strike on the National History Standards that she herself had commissioned as head of the NEH. According to the Los Angeles Times, Mrs. Cheney argued "that the standards were not positive enough about America's achievements and paid too little attention to figures such as Gen. Robert E. Lee, Paul Revere and Thomas Edison. At one point in the initial controversy, Cheney denounced the standards as 'politicized history.' " There were not enough references to the Constitution and too many references to the Ku Klux Klan. Not enough George Washington and too much Harriet Tubman. All in all, Cheney concluded, "We are a better people than the National History Standards indicate, and our children deserve to know it." (This was the height of sophistication beside Rush Limbaugh’s denunciation of the standards: "History is real simple. You know what history is? It's what happened.")

I don’t know if Mrs. Cheney has put up her two-cents worth about the new Philadelphia requirement, but it seems tailor-made to arouse her wrath. It is based on a spurious body of pseudo-knowledge known as "Afrocentrism," wherein the great achievements of western civilization–philosophy, literature, mathematics, and science–are said to have had their origins in Africa, specifically in the ancient black civilization of Kemet, known outside Afrocentric circles as "Egypt." Philadelphia’s students will learn, among other things, that African mariners discovered America a century before Christopher Columbus. They will be taught that as many as 50 million Africans were shipped to the Americas during the Atlantic slave trade. (Correct answer: about twelve million. Isn’t that horrible enough?) And as if to confirm Cheney’s worst nightmare, the great achievements of Africa will be emphasized whereas the United States will appear as the repository of virtually undiluted evil. Scholars more proficient than I have taken their swords to the idiocies of Afrocentrism. See in particular Clarence Walker’s lively but highly informed book, We Can’t Go Home Again: An Argument Against Afro-Centrism.

I’m fascinated by a somewhat different matter: the peculiar convergence of Lynne Cheney and the Philadelphia School Reform Commission. Lynne Cheney wants our students to focus on the great heroes and grand achievements of the United States. Our children "deserve to know" about our greatness as a people. But that’s exactly what Cecilia Cannon wants for Philadelphia’s students. "We have the opportunity ... to do something under our watch that is really going to do right by our students," Cannon declared, something that will have black students finish their courses saying to themselves, "We've come from some pretty great places."

Before I go any further, let me splash my credentials about, if only as a defensive maneuver. My field of research is American slavery; I teach comparative slavery as well as African American history; I’’ve supervised a number of African history Ph.D. dissertations. My point is not to impress everyone with my bona fides; it is only to say that you won’t find me raising any questions about the intellectual legitimacy of either African or African American history. I take these subjects very seriously, and that’s in part why I’m troubled.

For one thing, it turns out that my credentials––such as they are––render me uniquely unfit to comment on the Philadelphia proposal, one of whose primary goals is to play down the significance of slavery. Sandra Dungee Glenn, the school reform commission member who fought most for this proposal, is quoted to this effect in the New York Times. "People’’s views and understanding of who we are focus on us as descendants of slaves," Glenn said. "It begins and ends there, giving us inferior status." This is another standard Afrocentric turn: not much on American slavery; not a word about slavery in Africa.  By studying, teaching, and writing about slavery, I turn out to be part of the problem Philadelphia is trying to correct.

So Glenn, too, agrees with Lynne Cheney: excessive attention to subjects like slavery makes a bad impression. For Cheney students end up feeling bad about America; for Glenn black students end up feeling bad about themselves. This is all too negative. James E. Nevels, Chair School Reform Commission hopes that the new requirement "will reflect the richness and culture that all Americans, of every hue and nationality, have brought to our collective table." The new courses will complement the existing American and World history requirements, Nevels says, thus placing the entire district’’s history curriculum "within an inclusive multicultural framework."

I don’t know which is worse, Mr. Nevels’ simple-minded notions about what students are supposed to learn from history courses, or the gibberish that Philadelphia’s students will actually be taught in courses which, by the way, strike this poor soul as the antithesis of multiculturalsim.

It would have been nice if the debate over the Philadelphia proposal had focused on its serious intellectual flaws. But no. The entire debate, for and against, hinges on an entirely different matter: The proponents of the new requirement claim that it will boost the self-esteem of African American students, while the opponents worry that it will diminish the self esteem of whites and ethnic minorities.

I confess that I find this obsession with self esteem nearly as disturbing as the curriculum itself. Once history is enlisted as an agent of psychological well being it ceases to be a serious intellectual enterprise. History–like mathematics or biology--is not supposed to make students feel good––or for that matter, feel bad––about themselves. But that seems to be what the Philadelphia proposal is all about.

I am not a psychologist. I am not qualified to say whether students need to be spoon-fed balderdash so they can feel good about themselves. My own seat-of-the-pants sense is that self esteem has more to do with performing well in demanding courses, whether those course are in Trigonometry or African history.  Anyway, is self esteem what we’re aiming for?  Haven’t we all read about those studies of gang members who have high self esteem?  I was not happy when Lynne Cheney began hectoring me and my guild about teaching American history in a more upbeat fashion. And I’m not happy about having the serious study of African and African American history corrupted for the sake of anybody’s self-esteem.

What might have been a perfectly reasonable proposal to balance a curriculum slanted towards European history turns out to be nothing of the sort. Throughout the debate critics have been complaining about the "Eurocentric" bias of "traditional" high school history. But Philadelphia students now take no European history at all, and what they are about to get sounds more like "anti-European" history than African history. What might have been an innovative introduction to a serious field of historical inquiry turns out to be a curious reversion to the very same "traditional" approach that the proposal’’s defenders disdain. Except that rather than being taught boring facts about the great achievements of great white men and their great civilizations, students will be taught boring pseudo facts about the great achievements of great black men and great black civilizations.

In the end, what’s the difference between history as preached under Lynne Cheney’s American nationalist dispensation and Molefi Asante’s black nationalist dispensation?  Both demand the impressment of history into the service of ideology. Confusing history with propaganda, both forsake history as a critical discipline. And both establish a bogus psychological standard for measuring the validity of any particular historical inquiry. If it makes students feel good–about their country or about themselves, it make no difference–it’s doing the job.

More than a century ago good Christians worried that teaching Darwinism would lead students devalue human life and thereby diminish the glory of God. Fortunately we’ve outgrown such notions and nobody these days would seriously propose corrupting the teaching of science by.... Oh, never mind.

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