Students question diversity of history curriculum



Some statistics about biases in the textbooks used in Brookline.

In 10th grade World History at Brookline High, there are 14 units, beginning with the French Revolution and ending with modern day globalization. Of those 14 units, nine are entirely focused on Europe and the United States. One is about Europe colonizing other parts of the world, two are about the rest of the world resisting European colonialism, while only one unit is focused entirely on a non-European society. U.S. History has a similar problem. Of the 34 units in Advanced Placement U.S. History (APUSH), only eight explore in depth - and not just in fragmented paragraphs - the experiences of non-White people of the time.

Those numbers, while not necessarily indicating a serious problem, certainly suggest something about the way content is prioritized in history classes. There is quite a bit of history notably missing from these unit breakdowns, and some students have voiced concerns about what valuable lessons those omissions could be costing us. According to these students, by focusing on Europeans and White Americans, the high school’s curriculum may be limiting the growth and learning of students.

Vishni Samaraweera, senior and co-founder of Students Against Institutional Racism (SAIR), has spent time trying to understand and improve the history curriculum. She explained why people rarely notice the problem and the damage that causes.

“I think it’s damaging in the sense that students don’t realize it’s happening unless it’s brought to their attention. White and European is the norm, the normal thing we hear about and learn about from where we are, so if you’re continuously learning that, you don’t think there’s anything wrong with it,” Samaraweera said. “Because it’s the normal thing, you don’t know until someone explicitly tells you. That bias is in the air we breathe, so we don’t even have to think about it.”

SAIR and Samaraweera were instrumental in the diversifying of 8th grade U.S. history in the middle schools. Samaraweera mentioned some of the bias they noticed.

“With SAIR, we’ve done a lot on the American history curriculum and I know a lot of it is about the founding fathers and who set up America, rather than minority groups and the way their struggle impacted us, even from the beginning,” Samaraweera said. “We do two days of talking about slavery instead of incorporating it, and incorporating marginalized groups in general, more throughout the year.”

Samaraweera also noted that she felt that non-White figures were pushed to the side often in the APUSH class she took as a junior. A major catalyst of that, she argued, was the textbook.

“Throughout the textbook, whenever it talks about marginalized groups, they’re never the focus. That normalizes the idea that people of color and marginalized groups in America are the other, that they can’t be the normal group,” Samaraweera said. “There’s an ‘us and them’ separation throughout the textbook. You’ll read things, and then see this little thing in the corner about slavery. We’d only spend a day talking about different marginalized groups, and it’s this easy thing to memorize and push aside, not to dive deeper. The focus isn’t on them.”

Some statistics about biases in the textbooks used in Brookline.According to Dr. Oyeshiku Carr, a U.S. History teacher and mentor in the African American Latino Scholars Program (AALSP), this is one of the inevitable downsides of opting to take an AP class, since the content is normed for a standardized test that comes from a national organization.

“It’s been defined in a certain way, and broadly speaking, it’s a political and social narrative of the U.S. For a teacher that teaches any AP class, you teach it knowing that there’s a qualification,” Carr said. “It makes it hard for any AP teacher to teach about, say, great women chemists if it’s AP Chemistry. You can do that, and it might be very interesting, but if students are preparing for the AP exam, that’s probably not going to help them do that. That’s a specific track. Students who take that need to realize that they’re giving up certain nuances in American history. If you take APUSH, that’s not your focus. That’s just not what that class is.”

Carr emphasized the importance of representation of various racial and ethnic groups when teaching U.S. history.

“If you’re teaching American history, for example, and you’re not highlighting certain African Americans, or certain women or certain Native Americans leaders, you’re missing something. If you’re only talking about presidents, then you’re only talking about White men,” Carr said. “So if that’s my American history class, then any student who’s not a White male is going to say, ‘wow, I wonder what that was like for people like me.'”

Samaraweera described the work SAIR has done for the middle schools to bring that diverse representation to their classrooms, as well as why it is so valuable for students of color to have those diverse perspectives.

“When students don’t see themselves in the curriculum, it’s really hard to be engaged in what you’re learning and want to do more. Seeing yourself in the curriculum will motivate you to take higher level classes,” Samaraweera said. “We want to motivate students of color to go into higher level classes, to take APUSH, which is why we focused on middle school curriculum. We went through the entire master plan for the 8th grade history curriculum, and we divided it up and found primary sources and articles for each lesson, and we added discussion questions.”

As for world history in the high school, Samaraweera expressed concern over one unit in particular: the Imperialism unit of 10th grade.

“When you look at it, the different primary sources used are always talking from European perspectives and not really talking about the countries that are colonized,” Samaraweera said. “And while we do spend time talking about them, the sources that you get and the perspective are often from the opposing side. I think one big thing is that Europeans had the mindset that countries being colonized made them more advanced for the future, but I don’t think that should be taught, because people were doing fine before the colonizers came in.”

Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator Dr. Gary Shiffman explained why Europe gets a special focus in 10th grade.

“There’s a lot of Europe in the 19th century. They’re the big movers of the 19th century,” Shiffman said. “In the premodern world, Europe was not in the picture. It was the outlier that radically transformed, for a whole bunch of complicated reasons. It’s hard to understand how we ended up talking in English, here in the Western Hemisphere, if you don’t understand how Europe got really weird in the 19th century.”

Shiffman stressed the need to understand how we got to the present day, arguing that has to come first before we think about giving more people voices.

“How did we get like this? That’s the fundamental question of all of our courses. And the stuff that helps us understand that, I’m gonna teach. The stuff that doesn’t help us understand that, I’m gonna leave out,” Shiffman said. “That’s the story I’d love to know, for my 10th grade course. And then, for all the voices that are missing, go back and figure out how they fit in to that story. Because if you have that story, you can learn more. If you don’t have that story, it’s all just noise. It doesn’t matter.”

Samaraweera pointed out that it’s equally valuable to learn about pre-colonization society in the rest of the world, and assess what was lost to European imperialism.

“It’s important to understand what the Europeans did to other countries, but it’s also important to know what those countries were like before,” Samaraweera said. “We should look at what these places were like before that, how they were thriving, how they lived. I understand how much Europeans affected the world in that period, but if you are going to teach the story of colonization, you need to talk about what was there before they came in and destroyed most of it.”

Carr admitted, and both Samaraweera and Shiffman agreed, that not everything can come from schools, and that it is equally important that students pursue the whole truth themselves when confronted with diversity issues.

“We try to put in front of students the fact we should think about issues of gender and race and sexuality, we should examine power structures and why we have what we have, and who we are. We ask students to think about that a lot, but I think it doesn’t always resonate with everyone in the moment,” Carr said. “On one hand, you have to be exposed to different stuff in order to know that it’s there, but we can’t make you be interested, we can’t force it on you regardless of our politics. Students themselves have to seek it sometimes.”