The teaching of America's multicultural history has come a long way from the largely white, Euro-centric version students were taught for decades. Most of that progress has been at the university level.
Adrienne Dixson, a University of Illinois professor of educational policy and this year’s Black History Month speaker at Illinois State University, said the teaching of multicultural history on the elementary and high school levels remains largely deficient.
“The elementary through high school curriculum has failed to capture those moments where people organized across class or gender or sexual identity to push us as a nation to live up to our ideals,” Dixson said on GLT’s Sound Ideas.
“What is missing is a really robust analysis, examination and engagement of interracial and cross-class struggle,” Dixson added.
She said elementary and high school students generally “learn very little” about these kinds of struggles throughout U.S. history.
Textbooks are sometimes a source of the problem.
“Texas has all but rewritten history as it pertains to slavery,” Dixson said, noting that the state's legislature and Texas Board of Education approved textbooks that refer to slaves as “involuntary workers” or as “immigrants.”
That interpretation hasn’t found its way into textbooks across the country, Dixson said. It was contested strongly by some educators in Texas, but remains part of the official curriculum in that state.
Dixson said the teaching of history often ignores how various groups within the U.S. had to agitate for full citizenship.
She said Catholics, for example, “agitated for a curriculum that fairly represented Catholicism. The creation of a vast Catholic schools system was in large part a reaction against the distortion of Catholicism” within public education, Dixson said.
“It was the same for people of the Jewish faith,” she added.
She said it is important for students today who want to organize against what they perceive as distortion or oppression to understand how other groups in the past “have organized and pressed against a distortion of history and marginalization.”
Dixson said another piece of the problem is teacher education. She said most teachers at the elementary and secondary level are not given enough time for professional enrichment.
“I’ve long advocated for teachers to have opportunities within the school day where they can continue to develop as intellectuals, where they maybe teach a block and then they're off for a block and can focus on their content area, developing their knowledge. That doesn’t happen because teachers are called on to do a lot of administrative work and service work in schools,” Dixson said.
She said a “fixation with teaching to tests" also stifles the amount of time teachers have to enhance their knowledge in their subject area.
“We have really hamstrung schools and districts because there is all this structural stuff teachers have to concern themselves with, and testing is a huge part of that,” Dixson added.
Dixson will give ISU’s annual Black History Month lecture at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Prairie Room of the Bone Student Center. The title of her talk is, “Are We There Yet?: Race, Protest and the Challenge of Multicultural Education.”
Black Lives Matter
In addition to her research on multicultural education, Dixson has written extensively on Black Lives Matter. Although Black Lives Matter is often termed a “movement,” Dixson maintains it is more of a “moment.”
“As a university professor, I am happy to see young folks speak back to what they see as oppression and inequality. However, the movement-building piece is a much longer process and I don’t know that we are there yet,” Dixson said. “A movement takes decades.”
In contrast to Black Lives Matter, Dixson said the civil rights effort of the 1960s was a sustained, organized movement.
“There was a real network that people were plugged into that had coordinated efforts and there was a communications system,” she added.
She said Black Lives Matter is nonetheless an “important contributor” to the public discourse on race.
“The fact that young people are motivated to organize is always encouraging,” Dixson said.
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