African-American History and the Philadelphia Schools

[cross-posted at Cliopatria]

Back from a long trip, I read with interest in yesterday’s Philadelphia Inquirer of a debate over the plan to make African-American history a requirement in Philadelphia’s high school curriculum. The debate has been particularly ignited by the release of criticism from the Pennsylvania Speaker of the House, who observes, “most of these kids will never go to Africa”.

The year-long course is supposed to begin with African history, which is one of the things that is creating a somewhat confused discussion about the requirement. I’ve been looking for the details on the course itself and haven’t found them yet: I don’t know if the entire first semester is a survey of African history, or if that’s just a small part of the course. I don’t know if the focus of that part is continental or if it’s concentrated on West and Central Africa. Some of my professional assessment of the specifics depends on these choices a bit.

You might think I’d be enthusiastic about the proposal. All the Africanists in the region could certainly contribute a lot of pro bono assistance in the development and implementation of the program, and if they go ahead with the plan, I’d certainly be willing to pitch in.

But I have some real misgivings. Anthony Appiah made an important observation yesterday in the Inquirer: the relationship between any history requirement and actual learning outcomes is pretty hazy at best. It’s not very clear that the courses which are commonly required in high schools produce a great deal of historical literacy or understanding of the uses and importance of historical knowledge. Just stacking another requirement on as if it will produce useful consequences, whatever those might be, seems to skip some major necessary steps in reform. You could argue that such literacy will best be achieved with courses that are more focused than the generic survey of US history, and more relevant or sharply drawn. That’s possible. But I already sense that this course is so freighted down with competing and contradictory missions from consciousness-raising to self-esteem improvement, to being a subject aimed at producing critical thought in all students to being a subject intended to do identity work for only the African-American students, that I suspect this justification won’t play out in practice.

Beyond that, I wonder on a practical level if another requirement is a good idea in a crowded curriculum, and if African-American or African history is a wise choice to occupy a very limited number of possible requirement slots. Obviously the subject has a particular pertinence to Philadelphia’s history, not just because of the demography of the present city, but the particularity of its past. But is that what we want city high schools across the country to require? A course that is particularly aimed at local historical knowledge? If so, then a course on Philadelphia’s history shouldn’t be bounded by African-American history, but be something either bigger and broader like Atlantic history, or something even more peculiarly local (the history of Philadelphia or Pennsylvania itself).

You could say it’s got nothing to do with Philadelphia per se, that this is a topic that every educated American should know something about. I agree, bu the overly casual or less thoughtful kinds of celebrations of the proposal leave themselves little room for saying why African-American history ought to occupy a year of high school but Latino or Native American history doesn’t qualify. There’s only two clear ways to make that cut: privileging the history of the local or arguing that African-American history is just plain more important to understanding what it means to be American and to be a modern person. I might venture a ways out onto that plank and at least contemplate diving off it, but I doubt Maya Angelou and Jesse Jackson and the other familiar figures to celebrate the decision would.

There’s also the older and more familiar question of whether it’s better to study African-American history in the context of US history in general, to integrate rather than separate the topics. I’m agnostic on that point: you can’t give a principled answer to it, since lumping and splitting are simply heuristic strategies for managing research and teaching. It all depends on the particular purpose and style of any given approach, on the questions you intend to ask.

Good intentions, definitely. A subject I think is important, no doubt. But I wonder if this is the wisest way to deal with it.

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