Is There an Uncontroversial Way to Teach America’s Racist History?Historians in the News
tags: curriculum, racism, culture war, teaching history, critical race theory
A few weeks ago, I read an essay in the Atlantic by Jarvis R. Givens, a professor of education at Harvard University and the author of Fugitive Pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the Art of Black Teaching. Givens studies the history of Black education in America, focusing on the 19th and 20th centuries.
His essay is mostly about the blind spots in the public discourse around race and education. But in it, he raises a point that seems overlooked: The uproar over CRT isn’t about anti-racist education itself — Black educators in Black schools have practiced that for more than a century. Rather, it’s about the form anti-racism takes in classrooms with white students. Teaching this history to Black students comes with its own complications, but we’re having this discussion because white parents are protesting and entire news outlets are obsessed with it.
So, I reached out to Givens to talk about why this conversation is so hard, how he responds to some of the criticisms of CRT, why he thinks it’s crucial to not get stuck with a single narrative of Black suffering, and why an honest attempt to teach the history of race in America is going to create a lot of unavoidable discomfort.
A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.
The term “anti-racism” has become so muddled that a lot of people probably have no idea what it means. How are you using it?
Jarvis R. Givens
It’s about teaching the history of racial inequality and the history of racism, to understand that it’s about more than individual acts of racism.
The idea is that students — and educators — should have a deep awareness of how racist ideas and practices have been fundamental in shaping our modern world. Students need to be able to have these discussions honestly so that new generations of students aren’t just aware of this history, but can also acknowledge and comprehend how our actions can disrupt those historical patterns or reinforce them.
But one thing I tried to do in my piece was remind people that anti-racist teaching isn’t new. We’ve been talking about it in public as though it’s this novel thing, and perhaps it’s because so much of this discussion is about how to teach white students, but for well over a century, Black teachers have been modeling an anti-racist disposition in their pedagogical practices. They recognized how the dreams of their students were at odds with the structural context in which they found themselves. And they had to offer their students ways of thinking about themselves that were life-affirming, despite a society that was physically organized in a way that explicitly told them they were subhuman.
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