Suppressing or Inhibiting Teaching

Suppressing or Inhibiting Teaching

 Cynthia Vitere

I have been teaching history on the secondary and college level for almost thirty years. Much of this time has been spent as a teacher on Long Island, New York where my area of expertise has ranged from contemporary issues and criminal justice to leading the International Baccalaureate program in history in my current district. As a trained historian, educator and administrator I bring all of these mindsets to my curriculum and pedagogy.

In considering the question of how one addresses attempts to suppress or inhibit teaching I believe it is essential to first discuss one’s understanding of the discipline of history, why we teach it and how we teach it. Why do we ask students to take a history course? I believe the most important function of history education is to establish the foundations for informed democratic citizenship. In the primary grades, students develop a narrative of U.S. history and at the secondary level they acquire the tools to examine and critically analyze that narrative. This critically thinking student is empowered and encouraged to then articulate multiple narratives which reflect our pluralistic society. Education is no longer a hierarchical relationship between the teacher and student, but a collaborative relationship where knowledge can be nourished and exercised through regular open discourse.

When I first engage students in my classroom, too many of them assume that history is a set narrative with established facts that must be memorized. Very few students like history. Many adults I meet say they hated history class as children but now appreciate it because they finally see its utility. It is not their fault; as that educational experience is the rule for most of us, rather than the exception. For me, it wasn’t until pursuing my graduate degree in history that I was truly engaged in thinking and acting like a historian. I quickly learned that the historical narratives we tell are governed by time and place, by the perspectives of the historians and their audience, and by the availability of evidence. Historiography, or the study of how history is written, tells us that this process of continuity and change results in fantastic disputes among scholars; disputes that rarely trickle down to the high school classroom. For many, this critical history is not welcome in the classroom because it is perceived as being “too hard” or “too nuanced for the high school student”. Since “that’s not going to be on the test” it is deemed irrelevant, or worse yet, an expression of the teacher’s political agenda.

I do have a point of view. I want my students to take a seat at the historians’ communal roundtable, use the critical thinking skills particular to history, and contest our curriculum. By acknowledging the role of race, gender, class, ethnicity and every other “divisive” lens students confront the fullness of our sometimes painful past and forge a meaningful place for their own individual narrative in our shared story. For much of my career this approach to history education was not controversial but encouraged and valued as an essential component of civics education.

When I first started teaching history I was asked to create and implement a course in Multiculturalism. This course was initiated in response to racial and ethnic tensions in my district. This senior elective was seen as a corrective to those divisions. There was a desire to confront racism, ethnocentrism and sexism head on. While this was a challenging course, I felt fully supported by my administrators to engage my students with challenging readings and to moderate discourse which was frequently impassioned, sometimes tense, but ultimately a source of greater understanding and community building.

Since 9/11 the question about what should be taught in a history classroom became more problematic. With so many of my students’ families directly or indirectly affected by 9/11, history was no longer a distant topic. One had to regularly question how your topics and discussions might upset students or community members. I began to introduce trigger warnings into my practice as a way to acknowledge students’ emotional challenges, sensitively modify my instruction, but not silence necessary discourse.

With the election of President Obama the issue of race became more problematic but not one to be avoided. In my economics and history classes I freely used the PBS program entitled “Race: The power of an Illusion”. This program and its complementary website provided interactive resources which challenged student preconceptions about race and how it has influenced government legislation and programs in the 20th century. Students were challenged to critically examine, discuss and assess the subject matter. Although this curriculum demanded careful implementation, I never felt significantly anxious about the curriculum or my pedagogy. I never experienced any negative feedback or reproach. When I consider using those resources today, a paralyzing doubt stops me. Even though my graduate mentor and acclaimed historian Ira Berlin is a source in the program, the current political educational environment stops me from freely using him. Why? The website explicitly addresses the structural and historical nature of racism. Simply put, I would be targeted as a practitioner of critical race theory and pilloried.

If I were to teach the transformation of my pedagogy I would ask my students to identify a chronology of contributing factors. I would introduce the following: the emergence of Donald Trump as the voice of the Republican Party, the 1619 Project, the Black Lives Matter Movement and the Covid-19 Pandemic. When the 1619 Project was published in August of 2019 I was excited by the opportunity to introduce a reframing of American history. The beginning of my year focused on having students examine, discuss and evaluate the use of 1619 and 1776 as the defining dates in our national origin story. Excerpts from Nicole Hannah Jones’s introduction, as well as the rebuttal by Marxist and conservative historians were considered. We replicated the debate that ensued among historians. Students were not insulted, nor did they feel bad about themselves or experience any less pride as Americans. What they did do was engage in a lively critical discussion. With this introductory unit I sought to establish the transitory nature of history and the importance of critical thinking. I was neither worried or challenged by this lesson.

This, of course, is not the world we live in today. As 2019 turned into the presidential election year of 2020, the critical engagement of race became much more politicized. Still, I did not veer away from the lens of race as it is a foundational factor for historical inquiry, especially American history. After four years of the Trump Administration’s attack on evidence-based reasoning, the engagement of history became much more problematic. The normalization of framing evidence that you don’t like as fake by politicians and members of the media on both sides of the political spectrum impacted the classroom. Students would actually respond to historical evidence and claims in class with “fake news” as a silencing response. When silence is the aim, discourse itself is the problem. As a practitioner of critical thinking and discourse, my pedagogy became increasingly problematic. By 2021, I would become a target in our contemporary political culture wars.

As a teacher of the two-year IB History of the Americas curriculum, we examine U.S. history in year one and the emergence and consolidation of 20th century authoritarian regimes in year two. As I was teaching the Reichstag Fire and Hitler’s Enabling Act the January 6 insurrection took place. The continuity of this contemporary event and our historical inquiry provided a teachable moment. Students read contemporary German authors’ examination of American events from their unique historical perspective. The narratives were examined, interrogated and disputed. The sources were used to stimulate discussion, not as an equation of Nazi Germany 1931 and the United States 2021. I believed that I had a responsibility to my students to address what was happening around them, but felt that I had to mediate it through the lens of the past. Unfortunately, silence, self-censorship and discomfort became an unwelcome norm. I increasingly incorporated student writing in private blogs so that they could safely and critically engage history and contemporary events. Increasingly, I, too, self-censored in response to my discomfort. In speaking with colleagues both in the United States and on international IB web spaces, the professional fear was palpable. Was it possible to address these momentous events or was it best to safely stick to the proscribed curriculum? While many departments worked collectively to navigate a response, many others avoided discussion and left pedagogic choices to the conscience of individual teachers. In collective avoidance of this thorny issue, many hoped to protect themselves from acrimony.

Ultimately, the practitioner of critical pedagogy will be targeted by those who choose to close the door on the past, no matter how carefully they tread. My public crucible was in response to a lesson which asked students to assess the impact of racism. I did not feel comfortable or safe directly addressing the George Floyd/Derrick Chauvin trial but I did feel a professional responsibility to address the deep threads of racism and division. As a way to displace the dialogue, I focused on student generated claims which judged quantitative analysis to be more objective and useful than qualitative analysis. I asked students to apply these lenses to the impacts of racism. Students did engage in critical discourse, but what I found is that many do not want critical discourse to be taking place in public schools. If we cannot engage in critical discourse then we as educators have lost our most important teaching tool.

In historical retrospect, what have I learned? I would like to say that the experience of having my curriculum and pedagogy subjected to media and community scrutiny and attack would energize my efforts as a democratic educator. The reality is not so heroic. Much like the American Revolution, ⅓ of my professional and personal community supported me, ⅓ actively opposed me and ⅓ avoided me at all costs. This did not surprise me. When nations slide towards authoritarianism, teachers are often the first targets. The public attack on my pedagogy made this slide harder to deny and avoid. It made all teachers the target.

As teachers we are public figures who are under incredible pressure and scrutiny. One can hope to lay low and never make a mistake or misstep. One can stick to the text and avoid anything that hints of controversy, but this is not tenable. I came into education with a toolbox. The tools have evolved over time, but their purpose remains the same. My use of these tools in our current climate is much riskier. My curricular choices are more conservative, I hesitate to bring contemporary documents into our discussions of the past. I speak obliquely and ask neutered questions. To do differently is too charged, too dangerous, and too divisive but I must also acknowledge that there is a point at which I cannot surrender who I am as a critical educator. History itself calls on me to hone my critical pedagogy for these challenging times. The risk of not doing so is too great. The challenge for today’s social studies educators is how to cultivate democratic students in a world that is increasingly opposed to democracy? I do not have a singular answer, but I commit myself to seeking new methods and mediums so that we as social studies educators can reject complicity and collectively facilitate the better angels of our nature.

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