Young People Must Know Their Own History

Do our young people know about our own nation's history, particularly how our society has responded to marginalized groups? This question has been coming up consistently for me in recent months. It emerged again as I watched the new film Selma, and wondered how much our students know about the shameful incidents at the Edmund Pettus Bridge that are at the center of the film -- incidents that too many would still prefer to ignore.

Understanding one's own personal history has been consistently recognized as important in young people's learning and development. Students are often asked to write a story about their own family's history or about a particular individual in their family who may have contributed any particular way.

But too rarely do students focus in depth on the history of their own community, of their own people, in a way that helps them to understand why they find themselves in a particular place, living under particular circumstances. Two recent stories illuminate this problem more fully.

The Ferguson public school district was closed in the summer due to the events surrounding the tragic death of Michael Brown. The football coach, Mario McDonald, found another venue where the team could practice, and like any good educator discussed the issues that were so raw in the lives of these young men.

As part of that discussion, Robert Klemko of Sports Illustrated reports that "... McDonald...asked his players if they knew who the Black Panthers were and saw mostly blank faces. Instead of practicing one day, he showed them the civil rights documentary Eyes on the Prize and discussed the different factions of the movement."

Eyes on the Prize is perhaps the most well-respected documentary film chronicling the civil rights era. The possibility that African-American high school students may not have seen and discussed this story, their own story, is stunning. It not only reflects poorly on the way our public schools teach history, but more importantly robs these young men of the opportunity to understand what happened in the past that is shaping the world around them and their own futures.

A similar story emerges in the Native American community. An old friend, Dan Press teaches, a class at Columbia University entitled "Approaches to Contemporary Native American Education." The class focused in depth on the historical relationship between the United States and Native American tribes, offering students a new perspective on their own history.

Columbia students decided that their peers needed to learn this history too. They organized a program called AlterNATIVE Education where they traveled to Pueblos in New Mexico to teach mostly high school age young people about their identity and their past. Facing History and Ourselves which pioneered such curriculum beginning with a focus on the Holocaust assisted the students. The goal is to fill in the gap of the students' history curriculum at their public school off the reservation and help them understand challenging ideas like genocide, oppression, and colonialism and explore stereotypes of Native Americans... ideas many of the Columbia students weren't confronted with until college. Participants now have a different view of what college might offer and Columbia students are considering careers in education.

Organizations in the Latino community like the Llano Grande Center in Edcouch Elsa Texas have long nurtured a focus on the history of the predominantly Mexican immigrant community and the oral histories of the families and communities where the young people live. This focus in high school has led many students from this poor rural community to prestigious higher education institutions and perhaps, most importantly, to return to their communities as educators.

When people understand their own history they are able to grapple with the impact of the institutional structures that sometimes constrain their opportunity and the possibilities in their lives. Taking this approach opens the door for young people to be agents of their own learning and development as they understand why they find themselves where they are.

Other people I have been talking to about this issue consistently agree that not only schools but faith-based institutions, families and others, have failed to educate young people about their own histories. And I know from my own experience how difficult it was for my father to talk about his family's experience in the Holocaust. This may be a reflection of the pain and sadness that people feel about that history and not wanting to burden their young people, but in today's context the individuals I spoke with now clearly see that as a mistake.

If our society is ever going to find a way to overcome the impact of our own history, including what has happened with our Native American, African-American and Latino friends our neighbors' schools must step up help young people understand their own stories and what it means; families and our religious institutions must do the same.