I went into Boston way too early Wednesday, drawn to a program put on by the Pioneer Institute by the chance to hear Taylor Branch, the great historian and MLK biographer. Also on the program was Bob Moses, an educator and a hero of the civil rights movement who was director of SNCC’s Mississippi project in the early ’60s.
The immediate topic was “Teaching the Civil Rights Movement in Schools,” but the larger issue Pioneer has been focusing on is whether history and civics are taught in Massachusetts at all (research here). One little-noted grudge I tend to share is the decision in 2009 to remove U.S. history as a course required for high school graduation. One I’m ambivalent about is the issue of the long delayed inclusion of the MCAS history test as, along with English and math, a high-stakes test.
I’ve been a defender of MCAS since before it was invented, on the theory that there’s nothing wrong with testing to determine if essential skills have been mastered. But my love of history goes back even further, and I’ve long feared that a content-based history MCAS requirement would destroy an appreciation of history and civics for countless students. Telling stories is central to understanding history; memorizing facts isn’t. A teacher in the audience put it well: “I don’t want to see Bob Moses reduced to the answer to a multiple choice question.”
Unfortunately, the alternative may be that students never learn anything about Bob Moses at all, or about America’s founding contradiction. “Race has always been at the heart of American History,” Branch said, and a glance at the headlines or the balkanized cafeterias of today’s high schools demonstrates that race – or it’s modernized, diluted form, “diversity,” are as relevant today as ever. But if we knock U.S. history out of the curriculum and reduce the civil rights struggle to a non-threatening, non-controversial “MLK was a great man who had a dream” cartoon, how will our children and grandchildren come to understand their country?