Our public school curriculum needs forward, not retro, path

Opinion By Katharine Collins, WyoFile

The recent suggestion by Rep. Jeremy Haroldson (R-Wheatland) that Wyoming’s social science curriculum needs reform to ward off the dangerous notion of “identity politics” and stem an unhealthy slide toward a “liberal education” was a rude reality check for me. Last summer, I spent hours, really days, exploring social science curricula in several Wyoming school districts to gauge whether our schools are preparing students to be the sort of global citizens they will increasingly need to be. I never entertained the possibility of a push to “reform” our education system in a decidedly backward direction.

I believe that students of predominantly white rural backgrounds should be educated to compete in our rapidly changing world. (Let’s not kid ourselves, many if not most of our kids will leave Wyoming.) To be effective citizens, our students need social-justice education just as much as students in ethnically diverse institutions.

Okay, I know, “social justice education” conjures fears of indoctrination or brainwashing — teaching our kids that one particular narrow and intolerant view is the only possible way of seeing the world.

A review of academic writings on social-justice education, however, reveals something entirely different — a reliance on experimentation, critical thinking and open-mindedness to teach students how to engage with real-world social issues. The approach is borrowed straight from the playbook of the influential philosopher and early 20th century educator John Dewey. The idea is to help students to “share and learn from each others’ experiences, reflect on their own and others’ experiences to make sense of larger structural systems of advantage and disadvantage, and create new meanings for themselves,” according to the 2016 edition of “Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice.”

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Hardly the top-down, force-fed, anti-American propaganda we’ve been told to fear. Our students can be coached to consider controversial topics in the classroom. When we allow them to debate, do research and write essays they can reach their own conclusions as to whether white privilege or systemic racism exist. They can even probe for themselves whether Donald Trump will save the world from a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles, or whether President Joe Biden is senile and is being prompted through an earpiece by former President Obama.

As a former-full-time and current-part-time Pinedale resident, I was particularly interested in the social-science offerings of Sublette County School District No. 1. To give a few examples of my findings, the district’s American history curriculum covers slavery and its demise, but fails to underscore that it was the cruel and inhuman exploitation of the enslaved in cotton production that hastened the growth of factories and catapulted a poor nation into a global financial colossus. I’m sure we’d all prefer a nobler history of American capitalism, but our curriculum should portray reality, even when that reality is bleak.

Sublette County kids do study the role of the federal government in advancing the civil rights of African Americans in the 1960s. But, at least according to the curriculum, they won’t grasp how federal policies in the aftermath of World War II restricted opportunities for Blacks. While whites embarked on an unprecedented path to wealth accumulation, laws and legally enshrined covenants, particularly in the South, prevented Blacks from purchasing homes in areas where the banks were lending. And while  the GI Bill paved the way for white vets to secure a college education, historically Black colleges, particularly in the South, were swamped with applications and there were simply not the same higher education for returning Black vets.

I addressed Pinedale’s school board last September with some suggestions of how to amplify their curriculum to better coach students in negotiating our changing world. I got a polite acknowledgement from the superintendent, but no expression of interest from anyone in the school district.

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Haroldson is not alone in his history-sanitization campaign. There are bills pending in New Hampshire, Oklahoma and West Virginia to ban the promotion of “divisive concepts” in the classroom. Arkansas lawmakers sought to forbid classes, events or activities that encourage “division between, resentment of, or social justice for” particular groups of people. And the U.S. is not the only country where governmental efforts to reinterpret history are afoot. Consider the revisionist effort in Poland to punish historians and bury facts that get in the way of the government’s determination to exonerate the role of Poland and ethnic Poles during the Nazi occupation.

Haroldson is right about one thing: There are “two sides to the discussion of slavery.” The first is that the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery, marked the end of white supremacy and oppression of African Americans, who from that moment on proceeded unfettered in their pursuit of full citizenship and economic progress. The second view is that slavery was abolished and our institutions, laws and policies evolved to disenfranchise and marginalize African Americans so that well into the 21st Century their wealth accumulation and economic opportunities fall dismally short compared to those of whites.



WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.