Tuesday, January 28, 2014

False Narratives Dogging Public Education

Yale Commencement, 1962
In annual class discussions about slave history, almost always some student asks, “Why didn’t slaves resist slavery?” Of course, this is a fallacious question. I do not blame the annual questioner since the premise is rooted in a false narrative retold many times in the historiography of American slavery.

I have learned to anticipate the question and use it to launch into deeper lessons about false narratives in history. The retelling of the slave compliance myth was certainly a byproduct of our country’s persistent racism. Thankfully, ex-slave testimonies and the work of revisionist historians challenged this myth and unveiled how slaves resisted slavery often and in many ways during America’s antebellum era. However, the yearly recurrence of the slave resistance question in class discussions shows how these false narratives dog the study of American history long after facts have refuted the myth.

Likewise, many falsehoods persist in the public education narrative. The central approach of historian Diane Ravitch’s brilliant new book, Reign of Error, is to counter the many national myths dogging public education. As anticipated, Ravitch’s facts are ignored by the opponents of public schools in defense of their strong held beliefs that government can do no good and MBAs know more than teachers about schools and students. Corporate-minded reformers cling to their beliefs and turn a blind eye to the facts.