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VOL. 46 | NO. 27 | Friday, July 8, 2022

Who do you trust to decide what’s taught in schools?

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The Tennessee Board of Education has asked the public for its comments on statewide academic standards for the teaching of social studies, and I don’t feel optimistic about the prospects.

I’m reminded of a scene from “Blazing Saddles,” in which the boozy gunslinger Waco Kid is explaining to the new Black sheriff why he hasn’t been warmly received by the white town folk of Rock Ridge.

“You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers,” the Kid said.

“These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know … morons.”

Perhaps the Waco Kid and I are guilty of being a bit harsh. But if you’ve seen what can happen when some parents show up to voice their opinions at local school board meetings, you might share my apprehensions.

They loudly oppose mask and vaccine safeguards, COVID dangers be damned, these parents. And they sure don’t want their little Ethans and Emmas exposed to the notion that Black people and other minorities haven’t always fared so well in this land of ours. Making America Great Again apparently involves turning a blind eye to some of the country’s less-redeeming aspects.

As you may also be aware, I don’t have a lot of faith when legislators insert themselves into education matters, either. Like last year when, under the pretext of banning the teaching of critical race theory, lawmakers specified 14 concepts as illegal to be taught.

Included is the notion that one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex. Or that moral character is determined by race or sex. Also banned: promoting the violent overthrow of the American government.

What a strange view lawmakers seem to have of classroom instruction. But guess what? Turns out they don’t always embarrass themselves on education.

I took a look at the current social studies standards, paying particular attention to the ones mandated by state law. And they’re not bad. In fact, a lot of them look pretty darned good.

For instance, “students must participate in the United States citizenship and immigration test during their high school career.” It certainly seems reasonable to expect that students possess the same knowledge we expect from immigrants applying for citizenship.

There is a significant downside: Students don’t have to pass the citizenship test to graduate. Still, points for good intentions.

Among other issues that Tennessee students are expected to learn about:

• African American involvement in the Union Army. Jim Crow laws, lynching, disenfranchisement methods and the Plessy v. Ferguson decision. The ideas and philosophies of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois.

• The impact of the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to the industrial regions of the Northeast and Midwest, and of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling.

• The roles and actions of civil rights advocates (like Malcolm X, Thurgood Marshall and Rosa Parks) and opponents (like Bull Connor, Orval Faubus and Strom Thurmond).

• Significant events in the struggle to secure civil rights for African Americans, including: the Montgomery bus boycott; the integration of Clinton High School in Clinton; the Freedom Riders; and marches, demonstrations, boycotts and sit-ins (e.g., Nashville).

I confess to being in the dark about some of that stuff myself. Maybe it’s just been too many years since I sat in a classroom studying anything.

But I’m also pretty sure that, as a white public school student in Brown-v-Board-ignoring Mississippi, I was not expected to be much acquainted with black history. “Slavery existed” probably summed up the teaching, if anything. And God forbid that Malcolm X had been mentioned.

So, props to Tennessee legislators (and, probably, the educators guiding them) for helping make sure that today’s young people don’t grow up as blind to history as most of my generation of Southerners did.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com

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