This article was originally published in "The Express Times" (circulation: 40,000) on October 3, 2011 under the title "Public schools in Pa., N.J., flunk civil-rights teaching test."
Can you identify the source of this quote?
“We conclude that in the field of public education separate but equal has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
If you can’t, don’t worry. Not even today’s high school students are expected to know that it came from the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. In fact, when 12,000 12-graders last year took the National Assessment of Educational Progress U.S. History Exam, all they were asked to do was identify school segregation as the problem being addressed in that passage.
It didn’t matter. Even after being given several hints (including extra sentences from the excerpt and the detail that it had been written in 1954), only 2 percent of the test-takers could provide a correct answer.
Unfortunately, a recent study by the Southern Poverty Law Center made it clear that this is hardly an isolated instance of historical ignorance. As the report points out, “across the country, state educational standards virtually ignore our civil rights history.”
And before you go about laying the blame below the Mason-Dixon Line, the reality is that the South far surpasses any other section of the country when it comes to this subject, with nine of the 12 states that scored the highest in civil rights history coming from the former Confederacy. New Jersey, on the other hand, received a score of 15 percent on civil rights topics, earning it an ‘F.’ Pennsylvania’s ‘F’ was even more embarrassing, as it came with an abysmal score of zero.
Perhaps the most obvious problem with this widespread ignorance of civil rights history is that it neglects to recognize a large and important segment of the American community. With more than one-eighth of our population either wholly or partially of African ancestry, it is inexcusable for such a critical aspect of the black experience to be so inadequately taught.
What’s worse, a lack of understanding about the civil rights movement ultimately devalues the importance of race in other areas of our history.
For example, race impacted the debates at the Constitutional Convention (causing slaves to be counted as three-fifths of a person when assigning congressmen), shaped regional economies during the antebellum period (causing the South to remain agrarian while the North was industrialized), gave birth to the Republican Party (as a vehicle for opposing the expansion of slavery), and, more than a century later, helped the GOP win social conservatives by nominating candidates who opposed the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, including Barry Goldwater (who opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act as unconstitutional) and Ronald Reagan (who denounced the Voting Rights Act as “humiliating to the South”).
This dearth of historical knowledge also has far deeper social implications. In the absence of a more sophisticated understanding of civil rights history, Americans have been left with a simplistic “Hollywood” fairy tale, one in which the racists of the past are so blatant in their villainy that most of us can rest comfortably with the knowledge that no one outside of a fringe group could hold similar views today.
When the word “racist” is used to conjure up grotesque caricatures instead of flesh-and-blood human beings, then it becomes all too easy for people to insist that the term for such a bogeyman can’t possibly apply to police officers who racially profile African-Americans, shopkeepers who instruct their employees to trail black customers, and tea partyers whose intense hatred for our first black president is unusual even for the normally superheated world of American politics.
Until we remember that the racists of the past were men and women who – though willing to picket a desegregated school, cast a ballot for George Wallace, or raise hell when a black family moved into their neighborhood – were for the most part no better or worse than the rest of us, we will always be susceptible to repeating their mistakes.
Of course, this isn’t to say that race is the only area of history in which the public’s knowledge is woefully limited. From the religious right-wingers who claim America was founded as a Christian nation (and thus ignore Thomas Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists and Letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper, as well as James Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments) to the radicals of all stripes who wear the Guy Fawkes mask from “V for Vendetta” (without knowing that Fawkes’s goal was to create a Catholic theocracy in England), ignorance of the past can be seen in almost every aspect of our political life.
That said, because racism remains such a serious problem in America today, improving our knowledge of the civil rights movement seems like a particularly good place to begin correcting this deficiency.The original article can be found here: http://www.lehighvalleylive.com/opinion/index.ssf/2011/10/guest_column_public_schools_in.html