Philadelphia's public school system, under the leadership of Paul Vallas, has been making so much progress on so many fronts that it's a special disappointment when they blunder. But blunder they are doing.
In February, the "School Reform Commission" voted to offer courses in African and African American history in the city's high schools. Last week, the district decreed that every high school student, beginning with September's freshman class, will be required to take a year-long course in African and African-American history. That course, tentatively slated for 10th grade, becomes one of the 23.5 units required for graduation and joins U.S. history, world history, and geography on the list of mandatory high-school social studies courses. (Nobody has said what will happen to the African-American parts of the U.S. history course or the African parts of world history. One doubts they'll be axed to make time for other topics. Maybe they'll be taught twice.)
It's a fine thing to get students to study history, the more of it the better, and African/African-American history, properly conceived and taught, is a legitimate elective course. It deserves to be on the list, along with the history of China, the history of music, the history of science, the history of Europe, art history, and more.
But should every student in a vast municipal school system, regardless of their own race or interests, be required to take this particular history course? I think not.
Philadelphia's 196,000 public-school students are 65.5 percent black. The others are 5.3 percent Asian, 14.5 percent Latino, 14.2 percent white, 0.2 percent Native American and, presumably, 0.3 percent "other." It's a characteristically mixed urban school system that early in June staged a "multicultural fair." The head of the school system's "Office of Language, Culture and the Arts" (a woman named Chin, whose deputies are named Alvarez and de la Pe??a) sends out "Dear Parent" letters in eight languages, including Albanian and Khmer.
Yet every pupil must now take African and African-American history.
A founding principle of the republic is protecting minorities from the excesses of majority rule. The School District of Philadelphia is majority black. Everyone else is a minority. Yet who is protecting their interests? Why are they and their heritages being discriminated against? One imagines families of Mexican, Trinidadian, Irish, Korean, and Bangladeshi backgrounds asking why the school system is "privileging" its African-American students' heritage and neglecting their own.
System officials know better. Reform Commission chairman James Nevels said, "The ideal I would love to see is a rich, diverse, textural, and contextual history of all those who make up the fabric of America."
Exactly so. But instead of insisting on that "ideal," Nevels and Vallas are yielding to Mayor Street (who appoints two of the Commission's five members) and community activists bent on "reparations" for slavery. Says the education chief of the local NAACP chapter, when asked about equal time for other ethnic groups, "None of those people came here as slaves except for African Americans. . . . The Asians came over here because they wanted to. The Hispanics, too."
What sort of course will this be? The Inquirer says the African portion was designed by a controversial Temple University professor whose website, www.molefiasante.com, modestly depicts him in these words: "Molefi Kete Asante, the founding preeminent theorist of Afrocentricity, is one of the most important intellectuals at work today. His works continue his tradition of combining an extraordinary intellectual range with impressive ability to identify and clarify central issues in the current discourse on Afrocentricity, Multiculturalism, race, culture, ethnicity, and related themes."
Asante is, to say the least, an outspoken fellow who analogizes the Iraq war to Hitler's invasion of Poland and opposes African history being taught by white professors and teachers. (He likens it to Nazis teaching Holocaust history.) He is, in fact, perhaps the nation's foremost proponent of what Diane Ravitch terms "particularistic multi-culturalism," which is precisely the opposite of the "ideal" espoused by James Nevels. Until now, advocates of this approach have merely urged schools to teach children the history and culture of their own ancestors. Philadelphia is going further, saying to kids of Lao or Italian or Nicaraguan or Navajo origin that, like it or not, they must study African history - and the heck with their own.
The Inquirer says the textbook for this course will be The African American Odyssey by Darline Hine, et al. It's published by Prentice Hall (now a branch of Pearson) and sells on Amazon for $77 a copy. I haven't seen it but spent a few minutes on its companion website, which contains at least a few troubling things. For example, in the book's last chapter ("Modern Black America"), the four recommended website links take students to the home pages of Louis Farrakhan's deeply anti-Semitic Nation of Islam and Jesse Jackson's ethically challenged Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, as well as the "Million Man March" (and a page of biography that I was unable to access). See here.
Philadelphia is setting a woeful precedent. If it holds firm to this mandate, it will either anger 35 percent of its own students by ignoring their stories, perhaps driving them out of the public schools and further segregating that system. Or it will have to follow its required course in African/African-American history with scads of others, tailored to the singular histories of other groups and places. The latter is obviously impossible, at least for required courses, though plenty of scope remains for electives. The former course of action is undesirable. The last thing America needs is for its schools to foster intergroup tension and resentment. And the last lesson our children need to learn in school is that any one group commands special attention from everyone.
Philadelphia, though, seems to be slipping into the reparations habit. A municipal ordinance passed earlier this year (following Chicago's lead) requires companies doing business with the city to disclose whether they or their corporate antecedents ever profited from slavery. The next step - a bill introduced last week - will require all such firms annually to provide the city with a "statement of financial reparations," i.e., a list of investments and contributions that seek to make amends.
This is racialist politics that's bad enough in city hall. It's even worse in the public school curriculum. Voucher opponents often make alarmist predictions that schools of choice will promulgate "centric" curricula of one sort or another and we'll head toward an American version of Islamic madrassas. Could the route in that direction instead be getting mapped by the Philadelphia School District itself?
"African study plan stirs debate," by Susan Snyder and Dale Mezzacappa, Philadelphia Inquirer, June 10, 2005
"Philly's African education plan may have merit in Milwaukee," by Eugene Kane, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, June 11, 2005
"Companies' ties to slavery disclosure, not punishment," Philadelphia Inquirer, June 12, 2005