By Joy C. Dingle
Joy C. Dingle is an independent K–16 education consultant in the Washington, DC, area. She can be reached at [email protected].
Recently, a colleague and I had a fascinating conversation about education and exactly what a meaningful, well-balanced US education should include. My adopted city of Washington, DC, and our nation are having this conversation also. It is about time we did. There is no surprise that a lot of people have diverse views about what our children should be learning.
Eventually our conversation led to the topic of “dead white men.” Do they really matter?
Let’s be honest. Many times terms such as “founding fathers” and “great thinkers” are used as code. For some people, these terms are a shorthand way of saying that only Caucasian men have shaped history, philosophy, and the “things that really matter” in our society. In the past, neither historians nor curriculum writers saw a need to explore others’ lives and contributions. Some still believe that white men—particularly if they are affluent, Christian, and heterosexual—are ultimately superior in intellect to others. Everyone else and their ideas, experiences, culture, and humanity are insignificant, optional, or superfluous. Nothing could be further from the truth; as educators and citizens, we have a responsibility to speak out whenever such terms are used in untrue and demeaning ways.
For the past few decades, who and what historians should study and schools should teach has been a matter of debate. Unfortunately, the subject is often presented as a stark either/or of embracing or rejecting the canon and the roots of Western Civilization in ancient Greece and Rome.
Multicultural education and “dead white men” are not mutually exclusive ideas. Really it’s a matter of background and context. Christopher Columbus is one example. Whether our children learn that he “discovered” America or that he symbolizes a larger system of imperialist oppression and exploitation—or both—they need to know who he was. To exclude him from the curriculum is a mistake, just as it is a mistake to exclude women and people of color. We need the background and context of Columbus to understand more about everything from the plight of our native peoples to why many are deeply offended by the words and images used to describe professional sports teams.
As soon as they can grasp the fundamental concepts of government, our young people should learn all about the Bill of Rights. Today’s painful but necessary dialogue about gun control and police brutality is underpinned by the history and context of the Second Amendment. We have left these public problems at our children’s feet. At the very least, we should educate them, and be brave enough to start the story from the beginning. Whether we interpret the constitution strictly or broadly, school kids need to know the events and sentiments that led to the “right to bear arms.” This is the only way to have a productive dialogue about what that right means today. We owe this dialogue to the memory of young people lost to gun violence, whether they lived in Columbine, Newtown, Sanford, or Ferguson.
Our literary canon need not be limited to William Shakespeare, Stephen Crane, and Joseph Conrad—and our curriculum need not exclude them. When our young people read these authors, they can appreciate the works of Alice Walker, Amy Tan, and Junot Díaz as equals and realize that inclusion of these rich voices and perspectives is part of what makes literature so important to our society. Comparing and contrasting the views of “dead white men” to others’ makes all of us think more critically about the world around us.
The protagonist of Lawrence Hill’s Someone Knows My Name is Aminita Diallo. As a young child, she is kidnapped from her village (in modern day Nigeria) and enslaved. Much of her survival and success is due to her insistence on keeping her birth name, her memories of her homeland, and her spirituality. Captured and killed by the same slave traders, Aminita’s parents instilled a deep respect for education in their daughter. She speaks her father’s native tongue of Fulfude, her mother’s’ native tongue of Bamanankan, and writes and speaks Arabic. On board the ship that takes her to South Carolina, she learns English and eventually becomes fully fluent in the language once she reaches young adulthood—something commonly forbidden during that time. Aminita’s mastery of multiple languages and understanding of multiple cultures facilitates her ability to free herself and eventually write her story in her own terms. She never abandons her identity as she fights to acquire the knowledge critical to her survival. The survival of America’s young people is equally dependent upon a broad, deep, and diverse education.
Book and film titles, news articles, and even television commercials allude to historical people, events, and texts all the time. Imagine what our children miss when we do not take the time to teach them these events and texts. To understand Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on a deeper level, our young people need to know the Declaration of Independence, the preamble of the US Constitution, passages from the Bible, and the words of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” It would be foolish to leave these documents and their interpretations out of our children’s curriculum simply because they were constructed by those who do not reflect the current diversity of our nation. Dr. King’s speech is about far more than a dream. It is about correcting past mistakes and honoring our democratic principles. Let’s not leave our young people without the tools to continue his vision and fight injustice.
Like it or not, the power structure of our nation is predominately white and male. Many (including this post’s author) believe the power structure needs to change. We can envision a nation that embraces all its citizens fully and grows stronger through the sharing of power and from the inclusion of multiple perspectives. Yet we cannot fix our imbalanced system without understanding how and why it operates the way it does. Both not teaching dead white males and only teaching them amounts to under-educating our children—and that certainly won’t support this endeavor. We don’t have to embrace “dead white men” and their ideas, but we better know who they are and what they represent. That way, we can take the best of what they have to offer, critically analyze the worst, and build new understandings by learning about others’ contributions.