When she thinks about patriotism, Daniella Cook thinks first of the summer school students she’s now teaching in Chapel Hill. For Cook, a former history teacher and fair testing organizer for the Raleigh-based Common Sense Foundation, teaching U.S. history to local high school students has been a lesson in limitation.
“What made our country great was people, everyday people,” she says. “But still, in most of our history books, it’s all famous figures. One way to truly celebrate patriotism would be to teach history from the people’s perspective.”
Although there have been improvements in the way history is taught in public schools (Native Americans are now mentioned early and often in explorations of colonial history, for example), the primary focus is still on what Cook calls “factoids”–the big names and dates–and not on the lives of ordinary citizens.
Take the Civil Rights Movement, for example. The state’s curriculum goals for high school students include being able to “trace major events of the Civil Rights Movement and its impact.” But in the classroom, Cook says, “teaching about the movement becomes teaching about heroic figures, not empowering people. So you get the canon of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. But not Fannie Lou Hamer.” Hamer’s the late voting-rights activist who founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to challenge that state’s all-white delegation to the 1964 national Democratic convention.
What’s really interesting about the Civil Rights Movement is the “grassroots aspect,” Cook adds–the freedom schools, the community building, the internal power struggles, the contradictions. And it’s those elements that are too often ignored in favor of basic facts that will appear on end-of-grade tests.
Cook’s not the only educator who feels this lack. Charles Payne is a professor of history and director of the African and African-American Studies Program at Duke University. Over the past year, he’s been conducting workshops for public school teachers as part of the program’s Curriculum Project. Payne says the teachers he hears from are eager to change the way they’re presenting the Civil Rights Movement in the classroom.
“People are concerned about learning more about the movement in North Carolina, more about women in civil rights and more about the pre-history of the movement,” he says. “Teachers are interested in learning to think about the movement without reducing it all to Dr. King. The broader issue is how to connect the movement to the concerns of today’s students.”
Payne also sees the way the movement is portrayed in most school textbooks as “a very narrow, uninformed and uninteresting view.” One advantage North Carolina teachers have is that there are still people in their communities who participated in the movement and can speak to students from that first-hand perspective–“at least right now,” Payne adds. “It’s a fading generation.”
Why’s it so important to teach people’s history?
Cooke, who spent three years teaching history at East Chapel Hill High before joining the Common Sense Foundation, looks no further than current headlines for her answer. “Patriotism is about the power of the people,” she says. “The current anti-war movement is about that, whereas the pro-war movement is about trusting the leaders. How we teach history makes a difference in whether kids will be challenging and questioning, or following their leaders.”
For information on the state’s public school curriculum, go to www.state.nc.us, click on “N.C. Agencies,” then “Department of Public Instruction.” For information on teaching about the Civil Rights Movement, Payne recommends