Sunday, September 15

Aram Ghoogasian: Social history education, textbook reform need to start before college

There is perhaps no greater buzzword on college campuses than “diversity.”

At UCLA, students often talk about the importance of a diversified curriculum, especially in the social sciences, and the impact it could have on the student population. The push to pass the diversity requirement tells us as much.

The diversity requirement was a victory for our college educations, but it may be just as important to ensure this kind of education reaches students in middle and high school as well.

In a move that will take us in that direction, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation last week that will diversify students’ understanding of a major milestone in American history: the Great Depression. It will ensure that future history books used in California public schools include the deportations of Mexicans, over a million of whom were born in the United States, in the 1930′s, a series of events often euphemistically referred to as the “Mexican Repatriation.” This comes at a time when the presidential race has highlighted immigration.

While it’s necessary to interrogate and sometimes change the way universities educate their students, as we have done at UCLA, these changes come relatively late in a student’s intellectual development and have little to no effect on a hefty portion of the American public; about 70 percent of Americans over the age of 18 have not received at least a bachelor’s degree.

This legislation indicates that we’re progressing, but history textbooks can still improve by adjusting to a shift in the way people teach history that has been in motion in postsecondary education for decades, a shift toward social history. But addressing the diversity problem must begin before college to remedy it.

High school history textbooks tend to favor political rather than social history, meaning they focus more on leaders and large-scale events, like wars, than on the history of regular people, like workers, minorities and others that aren’t members of the elite. This may be chalked up to the fact that these books are faced with the tall task of covering the totality of American history in a single volume, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement.

Since the 1970s, college professors have taught more social history while putting less of an emphasis on political history. This is at least in part a product of social movements from the ’50s to the ’70s like the Civil Rights Movement, the Chicano Movement, LGBT social movements and the lesser known American Indian Movement. Our educations are the better and more far-reaching for it.

Of course, history textbooks are not totally devoid of social history. The Civil Rights Movement is a cornerstone of any high school American history course, although aspects of it are often distorted or toned down.

Providing a solid base in social history would essentially diversify the curriculum by combining two styles of historiography, not favoring one over the other. Social and political history are, after all, inextricably intertwined.

Unfortunately, in some places in the United States, curricula are severely compromised. New social studies textbooks used by millions of Texas public school students marginalize racial segregation’s role in American history. Texas’ American history teaching guidelines make no mention of Jim Crow or the Ku Klux Klan.

And while Texas may be a more extreme example, California is not exempt from such shortcomings. I clearly remember my high school history teacher pointing out to my class that in our history book, printed by a major American publisher, the forced relocation of the indigenous peoples of the American southeast to territories west of the Mississippi River, known as the Trail of Tears, was given less than half a page.

Sometimes these are space-saving moves. But in some cases, like in Texas, textbooks become ideological battlegrounds where certain historical circumstances and events are subject to erasure to promote a certain state’s or school board’s view. This instills ignorance into students at an early age, and the results could be dangerous.

The importance of giving adolescents a solid social sciences education perhaps seems more pertinent now than at any time in the recent past. Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and his call to deport about 11 million undocumented immigrants, a little over half of whom are Mexican, have thrust the immigration debate into the limelight even more so than it already had been. An upsurge of anti-Mexican sentiment among certain American populations has accompanied this increased attention, a sentiment which is undoubtedly tied to a poor understanding of historical and social conditions.

If social consciousness is one of the goals of changes to curricula like the diversity requirement, a solid social science education needs to be emphasized before students even get to universities. This means including events like the deportation of Mexicans in the 1930s need to become common knowledge; the general population needs to understand America’s complex social history.

Universities are often viewed as harbingers of social change. But the reality is most people don’t ever get to earn a college degree. Aiming for a more holistic secondary education could be just as effective for American society as progressive changes to college curricula.

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Opinion columnist

Aram Ghoogasian is an opinion columnist and a member of the Daily Bruin Editorial Board. He often opines about labor issues, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the University of California.

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  • Victor Wong

    It is unfortunate that US-born citizens of Mexican ancestry were repatriated during the Great Depression. However, the expulsion of unauthorized aliens is an exercise of justice that every sovereign nation on earth reserves the right to use. Illegal aliens degrade the noble history of immigration, subvert the rule of law and bring shame to their communities.

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