Friday, July 15, 2011

California: Teaching Discrimination Through Good Intentions

Shortly after I heard about the new California law mandating the teaching of gay and lesbian contributions to history, I heard that it had passed largely along party lines, and then it was pointed out that many Republicans objected to the bill on the grounds that it required the teaching of subject matter that “many parents may disapprove of.” Really? That was the primary argument against it? The opposition didn’t discuss the bill’s possible effects on the quality of education? No one objected to it on the grounds that it cheapens the presentation of history, or that it ridiculously supplants existing laws against discrimination in textbooks and teaching? No one thought to consider how the law would be enforced, and argue against it on the basis that it might make the writing and publication of decent textbooks substantially harder by cluttering them with absurdly irrelevant content? The major argument against a law mandating that educators reference the sexual orientation of contributors to history and that they leverage in such persons where such contributions are not evident or sexual orientation is not known was that it might make some people uncomfortable?

After signing the bill into law, Governor Jerry Brown remarked that “history should be honest.” Well, no kidding. I heartily agree, and so I’m genuinely curious as to whether Governor Brown really believes that the best way to make history honest is to impose artificial requirements onto what must be taught in any given subject. You see, in my view, whether the cause is noble or not, mandating a specific narrative in history is not honest education, it’s propaganda. By contrast, laws preventing discrimination in education, like the one that has just been overturned, are better positioned to promote honest education, because far from imposing a narrative on history, they work to prevent any such imposition. I’m an extremely liberal guy, but I don’t think it’s any more beneficial to skew the presentation of history in favor of my worldview than it is to skew it in the opposite direction. There are two roughly equivalent ways of limiting children’s understanding of history: You can gloss over aspects of it that don’t fit the rhetorical narrative you want to convey, or you can wedge in elements that do, regardless of their actual significance, historical relevance, or unbiased truth.

The unfortunate truth about American history is that property-owning, married white guys have always held a hell of a lot of power. As a consequence, though, they’ve done a lot of great stuff. That shouldn’t be grounds for blacks children, gay children, poor children, or girls to conclude that their role in history yet to be written won’t be just as significant, but I think there are better ways to convey that belief than by making such efforts to demonstrate the role of people like them in history that they impair their understanding of the progress that society has made.

I’m not implying that there haven’t been enormous contributions to history from gays and lesbians, or any number of other minorities. Certainly there have been, but presenting a particular kind of agent of history should never take precedence over simply presenting history as we understand it to have happened. The sexual orientation of a particular historical personality is usually not relevant unless, say, their historical contribution is in the area of gay rights. The sexual orientations of many historical figures are simply not known. Will California teachers and textbooks now be expected to go out of their way to assert that this long-dead person or that might possibly have been gay, or will they have to search all the back pages of history to find those who we know were? There is plenty of speculation that Abraham Lincoln and William Shakespeare were gay, but there is no way to retroactively prove that assertion, and besides, it doesn’t really matter.

In light of that, this new law is in danger of having the opposite of its intended effect. Specifically delineating the contribution of gays and lesbians – as if they stand in contrast to normal people – only serves to solidify the impression that they are a separate class of people, with their own culture and history, which the government must officially force into the existing narrative. But within a narrative that prohibits exclusion of any class of people without decreeing that they must be represented regardless of the extent or clarity of their contribution, it doesn’t matter whether a person was gay or straight if he signed the Magna Carta or fought in the Civil War, it just matters that he contributed to history. If we avoid discrimination, rather than teaching to it we can present historical figures simply as people, not as sub-classes thereof. And then any child in the classroom, whether gay or straight, white or black, can believe that he or she too might play a similarly powerful role in history, because he or she is just as human as they were.

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