Race and the consequence of ideas in the classroom

[Editor’s note: This is part three of a three-part series from Joshua Peters on the discussion of race and the teaching of American history. Part one is available here  and part two can be found here.]

One may feel that we have reached the end of the analysis as we have demonstrated who is responsible for Black Suffrage* in the same fashion one would associate the Holocaust with the Nazis. However, I wish to qualify what has been argued. Unlike the belief espoused by the political left that such generalized phrasing in education has no impact on one’s conscious or unconscious opinion, I believe language plays a significant role in conceptualizing the world. Accordingly, I wish to distinguish the Democratic Party pre-civil rights from the Democratic Party of today.

It is an understatement to say Robert Kennedy and former President Lyndon B. Johnson were influential in the American Civil Rights Movement. Both were icons of the Democratic Party. I believe RFK and LBJ were instrumental in shifting the Democratic Party’s sentiments on black Americans’ plight from indifference, often prejudicial, to one of empathy. I think it is fair to say modern Democrats reflect the latter sentiment. Accordingly, a qualifying distinction is necessary. Therefore, I will say pre-Civil Rights Democrats’ (or PCRD) political ideology around elitism and racial identity are directly responsible for Black Suffrage in the same sense one would say the Nazi’s Herrenrasse (German for “master race”) political philosophy was responsible for the Holocaust.

I believe the Democratic Party will accept this argument as they explicitly advocate for clarity and specificity in teaching history. Additionally, the Republican Party will accept this argument because it removes the notion of indoctrination that some groups are oppressed, and others are oppressors. The country is necessarily racist by blaming the consequence of bad policies espoused by a particular political ideology.

Blaming Black Suffrage on socially destructive political ideologies and subsequent policies should resonate with both parties. Per the Republican Party platform, “We denounce bigotry, racism, anti-Semitism, ethnic prejudice, and religious intolerance. Therefore, we oppose discrimination based on race, sex, religion, creed, disability, or national origin and support statutes to end such discrimination” Per the Democratic Party platform, “Historic wrongs and abuses perpetrated against Native Americans, two and a half centuries of slavery, a hundred years of Jim Crow segregation, and a history of exclusionary immigration policies have created profound and lasting inequities in income, wealth, education, employment, housing, environmental quality, and health care for communities of color.” Therefore, I do not see any contention on the basic premise of the argument, i.e., political policies that were an affront to human nature are to blame for Black Suffrage.

However, I do foresee more nuanced or technical criticism of the argument. There are two that come to mind: the criticism of convenience (i.e., that I am making a partisan argument) and the criticism that they are appropriate reasons for differences in teaching German history and American history. I will suggest the criticism that advances an argument from convenience is weak and the criticism that American history around Black Suffrage is appropriately general, while German history around the Holocaust is appropriately specific, is a much more valid contention.

First, the claim that this is an argument of convenience. This is a weak argument because it ignores the background discussion around language and the association of emotional sentiment with history topics, especially the awful bits. The fact that modern American’s lack perspective for what America has achieved when it comes to individual liberty is, I would suggest, a direct link to the generalization of how we teach American history, whereby awful events are disproportionately taught. I contend social studies tend to overly focus on adverse events without providing sufficient context that effectively establishes a lesson plan with no lesson. Speaking for North Carolina, the way social studies are taught currently, generally, is by proverbially throwing whatever at the wall and seeing what sticks. The lesson plan lacks specificity and is overly sophisticated for the age range, according to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. One should wander into a state of natural curiosity as to what does stick in a child’s mind when such generalities are taught about American history. I would infer that what is retained is what stimulates the emotional senses based on what the child can cognitively comprehend. In such cases, it will be what is simplest to associate, e.g., America is evil, black people are oppressed, and white people are to blame.

Furthermore, suppose the rejection of what has been argued is predicated on the critic not favoring the particular way I have specified cause and effect around the topic of Black Suffrage. In that case, it is a contention of negative opinion from the emotions and not a contention of productive disagreement. Accordingly, I have no interest in persuading a person whose emotions govern their mental sensibilities.

The other criticism could be around the argument that due to the period for which Black Suffrage entails, criticism of America, in general, is appropriate. In contrast, Nazi Germany is a more definitive point in time. Therefore, the specificity of Nazi Germany is appropriate, and the generality in how American history is taught concerning Black Suffrage is also appropriate. This criticism certainly has a more logical appeal to it.

Hence, it is a worthy argument to contend with now. At the outset of defending my position, I will reiterate that teaching members of American society have morally failed to secure black America’s individual liberty is a valid claim. However, we live in an American society where too many individuals cannot deconstruct such a broad claim into its rightful parts. Therefore, education must change to account for these overly simplest mental conceptions about American history.

While my response at the outset of my defense may come across as somewhat sufficient to address the criticism, I believe it is not. This is because saying the Nazis are responsible for the Holocaust is a definitive statement both universally (from an ideological front) and in particular (that is, we can clearly attribute blame to individuals), whereas Black Suffrage is the consequence of a political ideology put into practice, albeit definable by a specific political party and some of its members. That is to say, one may assert ‘the PCRD is responsible for Black Suffrage’ does not have the same definitive association as ‘the Nazis are responsible for the Holocaust’. To this criticism, I would say: the definitive association between the PCRD and Black Suffrage is not a necessary requirement to advert this kind of specificity in education. The argument being presented is that it is sufficiently precise to warrant a compromise as it takes into consideration both political parties’ perspectives.

The goal of teaching history in K-12 is not to reduce every event to a definitive fact but rather to provide appropriate specificity for that grade. So, while teaching America, in general, was responsible for Black Suffrage may be valid, it lacks logical association to the ‘who’ such that one can attribute blameworthiness to a body that has actual agency and a political ideology that is directly influenced that agency. Moreover, by making that connection to ideology in the form of a political party as the culprit, one can make another clear association: ideas have consequences.

There is no shortage of the phrase ‘America is an idea’ from the mouths of politicians. Regardless, I believe American’s take this attitude to heart. Unfortunately, some ideas are terrible. And if those terrible ideas circulate among a large enough political body, they can lead to appalling policies. And terrible policies usurp the well-being of the people. In teaching that ideas have consequences, we establish a clear connection to the lesson of Black Suffrage for modern Americans.

Consequently, this relationship to a lesson does not materialize when America is to blame for Back Suffrage. How can it? Countries by definition are abstract landmasses that house people with some semblance of shared culture. To say America is to blame for Black Suffrage is to say this abstract idea is the problem. Well, how is it the problem, then? One may look at the suffering of black people both in the past and in the present, and you will see how America is responsible. Aha! So something moved from an abstract idea to concrete action. And who was the agent that moved it so? That is, who took thought and made it real? Our interlocutor may be clever and say something to the effect of ‘white America’ or ‘American institutions’ in an attempt to be slightly more precise with their claim. Alas! It is no different from before. The phrase ‘white America’ and ‘American institutions’ are abstractions that provide no greater clarity to who is responsible for Black Suffrage.

So, while the argument can be made for the generalization of teaching Black Suffrage, whereas the Holocaust is specified, advocating for greater specificity in teaching American history around Black Suffrage is a far more superior proposition. This is because one can extract a clear lesson from history that is both productive and applicable to life outside the classroom. In contrast, generalities in teaching Black Suffrage do not provide a productive, definitive lesson for which the student can use in life due to its inability to establish concrete blameworthiness. The current lesson plan is obscure, and difficult to conceptualize the point of it all. Thus, students are left to reconcile events for themselves. And I will suggest this has led to unproductive consequences.

In closing, I believe we can find an ideological compromise on how best to teach American history. I contend that specifying Black Suffrage in America is the consequence of political ideologies espoused by the PCRD provides continuity and specificity in the lesson plan. Additionally, it establishes a clear lesson for children to be mindful of what ideas one purports in life and in positions of authority. As I have no flair for grand statements, I leave the reader with a quote from President Abraham Lincoln that was the inspiration for this work: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise—with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

Joshua Peters is a philosopher and social critic from Raleigh, NC. His academic background is in western philosophy, STEM, and financial analysis. Joshua studied at North Carolina State University (BS) and UNC Charlotte (MS). He is a graduate of the E.A. Morris Fellowship for Emerging Leaders.

*Black suffrage in this piece refers to the period between Reconstruction and the American Civil Rights Act of 1964. Black Americans, particularly males before Women’s suffrage, were legally allowed to vote but often prevented by Jim Crow political systems.