The Ignorance of Our Outrage: Thoughts on The 1619 Project

I’ve been pondering—and cringing at—a high school memory provoked by the online chatter over the past few days about the imminent publication of “The 1619 Project” in this week’s New York Times Magazine.

I think it happened during my junior year, 1970–71, when an exchange student visited my English class. I don’t remember his name, but he was from South Africa, and our teacher asked him to explain a little about apartheid and how it worked.

“Apartheid”? We-—good (white) college prep students in an excellent suburban California school in a world still a few years away from the international divestment movement—had never heard the word before. We were even more baffled when the teacher and the exchange student between them managed to explain what apartheid was. How could that be, we asked? Even segregation in the American South was on its way out, so South Africa’s complicated racial categories seemed archaic, ridiculous, and outrageous.

My remembered outrage is what makes me cringe today. We had not earned our outrage. I learned the American public school system’s traditional mythologized version of American history: the Founding Fathers were uniformly wise and noble men who created a nearly perfect governing document in the Constitution. And what little we learned of the Civil War involved a few battles between the Blue and the Gray, and a bit about how railroads and modern industrial production benefitted the Union side. About Reconstruction, we heard about carpetbaggers and scalawags who took advantage of and corrupted the new integrated state governments imposed by the victorious Union, and how that corruption and incompetence led to the end of Reconstruction and the restoration of more traditional Southern white-controlled governments.

There’s a slightly different memory, too, from sometime in junior high, of wondering how my civics textbook could point out the differences between the constitution of the U.S.S.R. and the less idealistic way the Soviet government really worked, and fail to note similar discrepancies between the ideals of our own founding documents and our government as it was and is.

Those occasional little glimmers of skepticism, though, never make much headway against our perpetual desire to believe the stories we white people tell ourselves about ourselves. It’s not enough for us to be the aspirational nation, the imperfect people always striving to live up to our ideals. We’d rather be the always-perfect nation, the people who already know best how to live and govern and show the rest of the world our shining example, even if it means we have to ignore most of the damage we have done becoming what we are.

I’m working my way through a long To Be Read list to remedy my ignorance—Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, David Blight’s Frederick Douglass, new U.S. histories like Jill LePore’s These Truths and Alan Taylor and Eric Foner’s American Colonies, Foner’s authoritative Reconstruction, Brenda Wineapple’s The Impeachers, David Treuer’s The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, and countless more. The history is there, if we will only look.

I’m astonished, yet not at all surprised by some of the reaction to The 1619 Project. The New York Times is stoking racist animus in order to sell more papers. Or bringing to light the less admirable parts of our past (and present) is unpatriotic and only damages our standing in the world. But just like Nikole Hannah-Jones in her inspring opening essay, I believe wholeheartedly in that aspirational nation, the one we can all work to make more perfect, the better nation we can create—if we have the clear sight and wholehearted courage to see what we have done to become who we are. Only by recognizing and acknowledging all our people, all our flaws along with all our virtues, do we have a prayer of reaching toward those ideals we are so proud of.


NOTE: The Pulitzer Center’s collection of curricular resources for The 1619 Project includes a downloadable pdf of the NYT Magazine issue itself.

Boredom as an Educational Tool

The November/December Utne Reader has one of the best articles on unschooling I’ve ever read in Astra Taylor’s The Democratic Education of Unschoolers. Far from the author’s countercultural upbringing, my own childhood was utterly and conventionally suburban. But what she says about boredom rings true:

Boredom: that’s the big one. It’s boredom we were released from. Everyone knows that school is about the management of boredom, the administration of mental fatigue. On the one hand, it acclimates children to clerical-technical piecework so that as adults they can work long hours at jobs they will more than likely describe as uneventful, mind-numbing, soul-destroying, or something that must simply be done and stoically endured. But school also inculcates boredom as an attitude, a habit, a way of being in the world, as all they’re really entitled to feel. It’s an ethos, one that lingers in adult life. I’m always stunned when people say, “Weren’t you bored at home?” Do these people remember being in school? Schools are factories of ennui, restlessness, lethargy, monotony, tedium. Think of the pencil chewing, the mindless drooling, the desperate passing of notes, the desire to disappear, the obligatory raising of hands and answering of questions, the trying to look busy when you’re about to doze off, the wish to be anywhere in the world beyond the window.

For us boredom was something to be passed through: it was a pit stop along the road to becoming engaged. “When you’re bored, you’re boring,” my mother would say.

My kids would undoubtedly recognize the tone of that remark—when they ventured to say they were bored, my own version was “Not my problem. There’s plenty around for you to do. Pick something.”

The Homeschooler

Decades ago, I become editor of a small periodical called NCHA News, published by the Northern California Homeschool Association. NCHA was growing at the time, and within my first couple of years as editor (and on the NCHA board of directors, too), we became the HomeSchool Association of California, and the NCHA News turned into California Homeschooler.

I’ve not been active in homeschooling for some years now—my own kids are into their mid-to-late 20s—but I consider the years I was involved with HSC a major part of my own education. From HSC and my four years as editor of California Homeschooler, I gained knowledge and skills and experience that I’ve used ever since:

  • writing and editing
  • nonprofit governance and operations (including how to survive & even enjoy 3-day board meetings)
  • dealing with critics (& when not to bother)
  • recruiting and retaining volunteers
  • making work fun (or, to be more accurate, choosing work that will be fun)

Every few years, despite my lack of direct involvement, I check up on HSC, just to see how they’re doing. I’m always happy to see that they’re still thriving, still running what’s long been one of the best homeschooling conferences in the world.

So it was with a great deal of pleasure that I heard yesterday from Pam Sorooshian about HSC’s latest adventure, the transmogrification of California HomeSchooler into The Homeschooler. To quote from their website:

For 25 years, the Homeschool Association of California (HSC) published The California Homeschooler. Every member of the organization received a copy of this publication, showcasing the lives of homeschooling families in the state of California.
. . .
That magazine has been expanded, redesigned, renamed and is now available to subscribers across the United States. Our writers, while many live in California, also come from around the country.

The Homeschooler Magazine does not endorse a particular homeschooling philosophy or approach. All families who are interested in homeschooling their children will feel welcome and inspired by The Homeschooler.

Going national is a huge undertaking. It’s a worthwhile adventure, though—there’s always been a need for a solid, informative, fun homeschooling magazine, and The Homeschooler may well fill that lack. I wish them every success.

Too Dangerous to Support Children or the Disabled

Now this is just embarrassing (again—they did it to the one on the rights of children, too):

Senate Republicans Block Ratification Of U.N. Treaty On Rights For The Disabled, Citing Impact On Home-Schoolers

I can’t decide whether I’m more peeved at yet another incident to persuade the great American public that all homeschoolers are imbeciles or that there are enough Senate Republicans buying this idiocy to kill the treaty.

Only upside is maybe it’ll help us get a Senate supermajority in 2014.

That Time of Year Again

It’s time to celebrate reading and the First Amendment and subversive ideas all at once: Banned Books Week (September 24−October 1, 2011) starts tomorrow.

You can find web badges and a lovely brochure listing this year’s banned or challenged titles (many of them mystifying) at the Downloads page of the ALA Banned Books Week site.

Some of my favorite books are perennials on those lists.

We’re Insidious

The unschoolers are infiltrating again.

Consider the school music program described today in a New York Times editorial piece by David Bornstein:

Little Kids Rock has had remarkable success getting students excited about music class by putting instruments (mostly guitars) into their hands on day one, showing them simple techniques to get started playing quickly, and allowing them to play music that they love to listen to.

The program is controversial, of course—critics say that schools should be teaching more serious music, that letting kids just play around with pop music they like isn’t serious education.

But the program’s supporters sound like unschoolers—they’ve discovered that letting the kids get excited about music that interests them triggers far more:

It’s important to note that the vast majority of the program’s teachers — and its biggest supporters — are themselves classically trained music instructors, who also frequently teach orchestra, chorus or jazz or marching bands. A few of them wrote in to share their experiences with Little Kids Rock. MamfeMan (20) wrote that the program had “shaped the culture of my school, the mind-set of these students, and has been — without a doubt — the most inspirational part of my life.” Another teacher, who is based in Philadelphia and teaches fifth graders, (56) added that when “students who want to learn a certain song … go ahead and learn the chords, and practice till they ‘get it’’’ the belief in learning-through-practice carries over to other areas of school.

Almost makes me think there’s hope for conventional education. If this style of learning catches on so well in music, maybe it’ll spread to other subjects, too.

By the Way…

I’ve neglected to mention that I was asked to serve as a resident “expert” on unschooling over at CafeMom for the month of August. It’s been a long time since I’ve done much homeschooling/unschooling related work, so it’s been kind of fun. Come on over if you want to add to the conversation—I’ll be there off and on every day for the rest of the month.  (They’re even going to have a drawing at the end of the month for a copy of The Unschooling Handbook.)

Another for the “Duh” Files…

Yet another study that appears to discover the obvious (though it’s interesting to me because there is depression in my family): “Tuned In Parents Cut Kids’ Depression.”

The gist is that kids do better when parents tailor their interactions to each kid’s personality instead of using the same approach with every kid. According to researcher Liliana Lengua:

It is parents’ instinct to help and support their children in some way, but it’s not always clear how to intervene in the best way. This research shows that parenting is a balance between stepping in and stepping out with guidance, support, and structure based on cues from kids.

Is there any aspect of life where assuming some standardized version of a person works better than addressing the specific needs of the individual in front of you?