Social science courses in United States public secondary schools have had a bad reputation for decades. Could tech be the solution, by making it easier than ever before to access information that teachers won’t hand out? James W. Loewen’s critique of popular high school textbooks, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, first published in 1996, has become a bible of sorts for fact-hungry, book-saavy teens; but now, they’re turning to Tumblr.
Textbooks currently under consideration in Texas, the watchdog group Texas Freedom Network (TFN) reports, are misleading at best, thanks to the social science standards adopted by the Texas State Board of Education in 2010. It’s not a new problem. Even in 1996, Loewen identified Texas state standards as a major problem with American history education, because some 50-80 percent of texts in the U.S. adhere to Texan standards. Notably, the state school board is famously stacked with conservatives who have limited ideas when it comes to what should be taught in school.
People of color, women, and LGBTQ people go largely unrepresented in these books, but more than that, students don’t just learn “facts” that are demonstrably incorrect (60 percent of Texans are having a hard time with the whole “dinosaur” thing), they also absorb a general sense that the current blatantly unequal state of affairs that surrounds them has no connection to the past: It just is. This can be a particular problem when it comes to race relations.
Across the country, high school history textbooks tend to codify the popular ideology that Eduardo Bonilla-Silva termed “color-blind racism”: Without clearly drawn connections between the enslavement of Africans in the United States and the abuse of other minorty groups and the current economic position of people of color, the reader is left with no explanation for current racial inequalities, other than perceived failures of personal responsibility. It’s no wonder that Black, Latino, and other students of color might choose to check out from school rather than paying attention; and if the goal is to keep kids in school, it’s not working well.
So how do we keep students in school while ensuring access to factually correct, useful, informative instruction?
Charter schools are often held up as a panacea for the ills of public education. The fight to fairly represent U.S. history brings to mind projects like the Black Panther Party’s liberation schools, which focused on educating students who had traditionally been ignored. Some recent studies suggest that low-income, Black, and English-language learner students are doing better in charters than traditional public schools.
Other investigations, however, highlight the ways in which charter schools may stack their student bodies to achieve those results, largely through “selective” admissions processes that weed out disabled or disadvantaged students. Critics argue that ultimately, charter schools siphon funds out of traditional public schools, harming the most vulnerable students who are unable to advocate for themselves.
The pervasive influence of Texas standards on official materials leads one to the conclusion that outside sources may be our best shot at real historical education (in fact, the best of the materials reviewed by TFN, Social Studies School Service’s U.S. History package, is an array of print and electronic sources from which an instructor may individually tailor their lessons). Today’s students seem better off than I was as a high school student in 1996, armed only with Lies My Teacher Told Me against a history teacher who denied that queer men were victims of the Holocaust. Internet sources of historical evidence and analysis are now varied and robust, and that’s something to celebrate.
There’s a new information technology landscape out there, and it’s providing a brand new set of opportunities for students. Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter provide an exciting possibility for the development of teaching materials: Anita Sarkeesian’s feminist media criticism of video games was crowdfunded, for example, and numerous writers and illustrators have successfully funded picture books about people of color that mainstream publishers reject as lacking sufficient “universal” appeal.
Many materials are already available for free, if you know where to look. Today’s high school students may learn a great deal that Texas doesn’t want them to know from dedicated public scholars like Tumblr’s medievalpoc, who provides numerous historical sources that give the lie to the whitewashed mainstream historical narrative and models scientific inquiry and engagement in her online interactions.
Any sufficiently motivated teacher can use Tumblr to recreate this kind of conversational scholarship. In my own university courses on social inequality, I’ve started using Tumblr to provide supplementary materials to interested students. The students who excitedly reported sharing class readings with parents and roommates are thrilled to have a steady feed of additional content in a format that is easy to push to their own social networks. Tumblr allows me to tag content with the week of class to which it best relates, and even schedule posts so that relevant materials come up when students should be prepared by assigned readings to best consider them. I also offer contributions to the course Tumblr as a way for more reserved students to make up participation points in discussion section.
The caveat here is that it is primarily the students who are already interested and primed to do well who use these online supplements. I’ve never required students to use them; while students could create throw-away accounts for Tumblr for privacy purposes, I have never felt comfortable requiring participation in a space that is open to the same forms of oppression that permeate our face-to-face lives, with the virtual veil of pseudonymity that so often results in abuse.
Furthermore, without formal requirements, and on a K-12 level, the students most in need of these resources may be the least likely to seek them out. Marginalized people can internalize the dominant narrative of their supposed deficits, and the most privileged, entitled kids, the ones who will grow up to join the Texas State School Board, won’t learn any of this stuff unless someone requires it. Maybe not even then.
When it comes to ameliorating the problem with Texas textbooks, digital culture for K-12 students may not be enough, given the barriers to access. Students need to have the active desire for research along with skills and support; can they go to a librarian for help when the librarian supports conservative viewpoints? Will a teacher guide a student in the right direction towards resources about U.S. history when instructors are restricted by the school board?
Tech is often posited as the solution to everything in digital spaces, and in this environment it provides demonstrable resources, but it is clearly only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to addressing the shortfalls in U.S. textbook standards. No student should be encountering blatant untruths in required reading, and that may require rethinking how textbook standards are set.