How do we teach civil rights?

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler made a joke at the 2015 Golden Globes that summed up my grade school civil rights education: “[T]he movie Selma is about the American civil rights movement that totally worked and now everything’s fine.”

As my classmates and I learned it, the civil rights movement belonged to a bygone era, even as my teachers shared their experiences with being bussed to school in different neighborhoods. Moreover, our civil rights curriculum focused almost solely on the civil rights movement. We did study women’s suffrage, memorizing the names Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but we never framed the issue as one of civil rights. Stonewall was a brief mention in my textbook that we never spoke about in class. But in each of those cases, the message was that society had gotten past these issues.

Yet, this is clearly not the case. Civil rights are very much a live issue, encompassing race, gender, sexual identity, and more. Our grade school education system should reflect that.

As the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) noted in reports from 2011 and 2014, most states fail at incorporating civil rights into their curricula, and the effects are dismaying. For example, one question on the 2010 National Assessment of Education Progress U.S. History Exam presented the following quote: “To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority . . . that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone. . . . We conclude that in the field of public education separate but equal has no place. Separate education facilities are inherently unequal.”

Students were asked to “describe the conditions that this 1954 decision was designed to correct.” The graders looked for “only two particulars: that the decision—which students did not have to identify as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas—was prompted by the existence of segregation, and that the segregation applied to schools.”

Only 2% of the 12,000 high school seniors who took the test got a “complete” score.

The 2011 SPLC report also looked at state curriculum requirements for teaching the civil rights movements and found that no state covered more than 70% of “the generally accepted core knowledge about the movement.”[1] Sixteen states do not require any instruction about the civil rights movement. Only Alabama, Florida, and New York received A’s, requiring at least 60% of the core knowledge. The 2014 updates recognized improvements in the states, but 20 states still received failing scores.

These reports highlight a serious problem in the way schools teach civil rights, but they also reveal another problem in how we view civil rights education—these evaluations primarily consider how states teach the civil rights movement.  The study’s focus on the civil rights movement makes sense considering the organization’s goals, but it does seem to speak to an understanding that civil rights education means the civil rights movement.

That is changing, though. In 2016, California voted unanimously to include the history of the LGBT movement in public school curriculum, as well as material on voter education, financial literacy, the history of people with disabilities, and genocide. The curriculum includes lessons on the emergence of gay rights organizations and the struggle for gay marriage rights in California from the 1970s to the present. A statement from Equality California, an LGBT advocacy group, explained the importance of these topics in the public school curriculum: “It allows all students to think critically and expansively about how that past relates to the present and future roles that they can play in an inclusive and respectful society.”

Broadening our civil rights education and emphasizing how these issues still persist will shape how future generations approach the problems that we still face. But these curricular changes also provide students with a more welcoming school environment, reminding students who may feel unrepresented in the traditional curriculum that their history and present matter too.

 

[1] SPLC worked to develop a rubric of topics that “a competent citizen needs to fain a reasonably full understanding of the civil rights movement.” The rubric was created by reading the most widely used American history textbooks and consulting with historians. It includes a table of key figures, groups, events, and tactics that should be included in state curricula.

Written by

Sonia is a 1L at HLS. She is interested in how international ideas influence domestic laws, the relationships between law and fairy tales, and the role of local government in implementing change. She is a part of the Mississippi Delta Project, the Access to Justice Lab, the Journal of Law and Gender, and HLS ACLU. She studied English literature and human rights at the University of Chicago.

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