Why should schools teach about race and racism? To equip students to work toward justice in public life
In school districts across Indiana this year, some loud voices are objecting to schools teaching students about race and about racism. Ten states have gone so far as to pass laws that ban the teaching of "divisive" subjects, in an effort to control ideas and confine the teaching of history to what they find to be ideologically palatable—in other words, to substitute propaganda for history.
In this guest post, the grandfather of two students expresses support for our local school district to continue to teach about race and racism. Keith Barton is a professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and coordinator for the Doctoral Program in Teacher Education and Curriculum Studies at the Indiana University School of Education.
I encourage MCCSC to continue teaching about race and racism, both in history and in the world today. Preparing young people to become members of a democratic society requires that they understand difficult and contentious issues in the nation’s past and present. Omitting, ignoring, or downplaying such issues would undermine their ability to work toward justice in public life—an effort that represents the very foundation of U.S. social and political ideals.
As a grandparent of two elementary students in MCCSC (one now, the other a year from now), I want them to learn, in regular and systematic ways, about the forces that have shaped the nation—and this includes racism and white supremacy. I want them to learn about the many people—Black, White, Asian, Latinx, LGBTQ, and of differing religions—who have struggled to bring about a more just nation and world, but they can only understand these achievements if they understand the problems that created the need for struggle in the first place. And I certainly want them to learn how these problems continue to plague our society, not just in the form of personal prejudice, but in racially-motivated institutions and practices such as mass incarceration, housing and employment discrimination, and systematic violence against minorities, among other issues.
My wife, our daughter, and I talk with the children about these problems. Being of mixed races themselves, they are well aware of the importance of race. Schools should further equip them—and all students—with a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the role of race in U.S. life, and of ways to bring about a more just society. This is not simply our personal preference as parents and grandparents; it a responsibility of schools, as reflected in state academic standards, in national curriculum frameworks, and even in human rights documents. Students deserve to learn about these issues, and without the work of teachers and schools, their learning is likely to be haphazard at best, and more likely to reinforce the racist practices that schools should be working against. Part of the mission of MCCSC is to prepare “responsible global citizens,” and this cannot occur if students do not learn to face social issues—even the most difficult ones—honestly and thoughtfully.
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