Social Education 55(6) pps. 351-352
©1991 National Council for the Social Studies
Terrie L. Epstein*
The National Commission for Social Studies in the Schools has proposed combining the study of United States history and world history into a single chronological framework at the secondary level, offered over three years. In this sequence of courses, United States history would not be taught as a separate course unless mandated by state law; rather, it would be taught within the context of world history. The curriculum proceeds as follows. The 9th grade course is organized around "salient characteristics" of major civilizations from the beginning of recorded time to 1750. In the 10th grade, the curriculum covers United States and world history and geography from 1750-1900, organized around three themes: democratic revolutions, industrial and technological revolutions, and modern growth and mobility of populations. The 11th grade course completes the sequence of study in United States and world history and geography from 1900 to the present by focusing on "how the three dominant movements of the 19th century work themselves out in the 20th" (National Commission for Social Studies in the Schools 1989, 17).
I commend the commission for developing something new for the secondary social studies curriculum. For some time now, college and university historians have been rewriting history from a "comparative" or world history perspective and the commission's project represents a new level of synthesis for the discipline.1 Depending upon the themes or questions around which the study of civilizations, events, or processes are organized, a world history curriculum is compatible with many of the approaches social studies educators have advocated for years, such as a global or issues-centered perspective. In theory, or in a world where all things are equal, I can support the commission's plan for reorganizing this piece of the social studies curriculum.
Unfortunately, we live in a world where all things and all people are not equal, and by emphasizing commonality or comparison across civilizations or cultures there will be less time to examine difference, especially as difference has played itself out in our nation's past. The histories of people of color in this country, for example, are for the most part ignored in secondary schools. This is true, in part, because they do not fit neatly into the predominantly political framework that characterizes traditional United States history textbooks.2 Under the commission's plan, these same histories will continue to be shortchanged because each will be one among many strands competing for inclusion under world history's three or four unifying themes.
Undoubtedly, the commission believes we can resolve this difficulty by adding "race relations" or "minorities" to the list of broad themes around which all history is taught. There are, after all, telling tales from around the world-as in the case of Native Americans and Mexican Americans-of majority populations that have become minorities, with the subsequent loss of land, livelihood, and life. Instances and episodes from around the globe also demonstrate-as in the case of African Americans-that the "mobility of populations" has occured involuntarily.3 And the world has starkly witnessed-as in the case of Japanese Americans-entire groups of people confined, concentrated, or killed in camps.
Although it may be intellectually interesting to examine these experiences within a broad context, this approach perpetuates the myth of marginality by taking out of a national context the histories of people of color. The histories of African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans are not only significant as a basis for comparison to people in other times or places; these histories are important because one cannot comprehend accurately the whole of United States history without taking into account the conditions, cultures, conflicts, and contributions people of color have created and encountered. Until we rewrite the story of this nation's past integrating the experiences of diverse groups of people into the broad narrative, and until that story becomes a part of the common culture, I believe more time-not less-is necessary for studying the experiences of people of color within the context of United States history.
What do students gain by reading about their histories from the perspectives of those dispossessed of power? First, the invisible becomes visible as the histories of people of color share the curricular spotlight and become part of the common core. Second, students can relate these historical experiences to contemporary conditions in an effort to comprehend and change the ways in which racism operates today. Third, students can compare and contrast the historical record on people of color with the traditional textbook narrative and judge well-worn claims about the virtue and value of democracy and capitalism in the United States. Overall, by studying the lives of people of color within the context of United States history, students in schools today will acquire the historical knowledge they need to answer in an honest and relevant way the questions the commission has posed: "Who am I?" "To what communities do I belong?" and "What does citizenship in our nation require of me as an individual and as a member of all the various groups to which I belong?"(5).
As if in response to these very questions, Maya Angelou's poem "America" renders an image of the past still waiting to be received (1975, 25):
The gold of her promise
has never been mined
Her borders of justice
not clearly defined
Her crops of abundance
the fruit and the grain
Have not fed the hungry
nor eased that deep pain
Her proud declarations
are leaves on the wind
Her southern exposure
black death did defend
Discover this country
dead centuries cry
Erect noble tablets
where none can decry
"She kills her bright future
and rapes for a sou
Then entraps her children
with legends untrue"
I beg you
Discover this country.
Let us lie no longer about our legacy; let us integrate into the presentation of our past the visions of this poet and the voices of all people who systematically have been dispossessed and deprived of power and attending privilege.
1For articles on world history see the Journal of World History. Information on the state of the study of world history can be obtained from the World History Association, Department of History, Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA 19104.2For various views on the treatment of people of color in secondary United States history textbooks, see articles and books by the following authors: Davis et al. 1986; Fitzgerald 1979; Garcia and Goebel 1985; Garcia and Tanner 1985; Garza-Lubek 1987; Glazer and Ueda 1983; Ravitch 1990; and Sewall 1987.3For examples of works that compare the historical experiences of African Americans with the experiences of people in other societies, see the following: Kolchin 1987; Davis 1984; Degler 1971; Frederickson 1988; Pressley 1989; and Toplin 1981.References
Angelou, Maya. Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well. New York: Random House, 1975.Davis, David Bryon. Slavery and Human Progress. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.Davis, O. L., Jr., Gerald Ponder, Lynn M. Burlbaw, Maria Garza-Lubek, and Alfred Moss. Looking at History: A Review of Major U.S. History Textbooks. Washington, D.C.: People for the American Way, 1986.Degler, Carl N. Neither Black nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States. New York: Macmillan, 1971.Fitzgerald, Frances. America Revised: History Schoolbooks in the Twentieth Century. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1979.Frederickson, George. The Arrogance of Race: Historical Perspectives on Slavery, Racism and Social Inequality. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1988.Garcia, Jesús, and Julie Goebel. "A Comparative Study of the Portrayal of Black Americans in Selected U.S. History Textbooks." Negro Educational Review 36, nos. 3-4 (July/October 1985): 118-127.Garcia, Jesús, and David E. Tanner. "The Portrayal of Black Americans in U.S. History Textbooks." Social Studies 76, no. 5 (September/October 1985): 200-204.Garza-Lubek, Maria. "U.S. History Textbooks: The Next Hundred Years." OAH Magazine of History 2, no. 2 (1987): 9-11.Glazer, Nathan, and Reed Ueda. Ethnic Groups in History Textbooks. Washington, D.C.: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1983.Kolchin, Peter. Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988.National Commission for Social Studies in the Schools. Charting a Course: Social Studies for the 21st Century. Washington, D.C.: National Commission for Social Studies in the Schools, 1990.Pressley, Thomas J. "Reconstruction in the Southern United States: A Comparative Perspective." Magazine of History 4, no. 1 (Winter 1989): 14-33.Ravitch, Diane. "Multiculturalism: E. Pluribus Plures." The American Scholar (Summer 1990): 337-354.Sewall, Gilbert T. American History Textbooks: An Assessment of Quality. New York: Educational Excellence Network, 1987.Toplin, Robert B. Freedom and Prejudice: The Legacy of Slavery in the United States and Brazil. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981.Terrie L. Epstein is Assistant Professor of Education at Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts 02167.