Dear Dr. Comer:
My 12-year-old son came home from school as mad as a wet hen the other day. Several white students teased him about the fact that his ancestors had been slaves. This occurred after a social studies class in which slavery was mentioned. He feels that the teacher is at fault because of the way the discussion -- or lack of discussion -- took place.
Apparently the teacher mentioned that slavery existed, that blacks had a bad time and that was it. We have had a number of discussions about slavery, its meaning, implications and consequences in our family. Thus, our son knows there is more to say about it than was said. He knows that the white students have nothing to boast about.
He also feels that if he reacts to the other students he'll be blamed, so he is frustrated and angry.
I plan to talk to the teacher, but I'd appreciate your thinking on this matter. J. W. Dear J. W.:
I support your decision to speak with the teacher. Unpleasant and unfortunate events in American history are treated very much like sex in many classrooms: taboo subjects.
There is an underlying wish that the subject area go away. At the same time it is a denial of a vital and important part of American history. This is most unfortunate. Students can learn a lot from discussions of historical developments, such as slavery.
Most teachers grew up during a time when subjects that reflected badly on the country were taboo areas. Because they identify with national heroes and national achievements, they feel guilt and embarrassment. They are often unable to consider, and help the students consider, the way the events of yesterday are related to the complexities and issues of life in America now.
A history or social science teacher should have a class explore the contradictions between slavery, the treatment of immigrants, American Indians and others and the principles set forth in the American Constitution or the religious principles the Constitution was based on. Schools should help students look at the way ambition, greed, insecurity, ignorance and other human shortcomings cause people -- the average and the famous -- to violate the principles they want to live by.
Students should be asked to consider how in the past the absence of science and communication made it easier for one group to exploit and abuse another.
Teachers should be able to help students understand how we all are capable, because of our human weaknesses, of acting in wrong and harmful ways. In the elementary school it is possible to help students think about how abusive and unfair behavior on the playground and with others everywhere is similar to unjust and abusive events in history.
Older youngsters can be asked to consider how their cliques and other unfair practices are similar to historical mistreatment of people.
A good history teacher will show the relationship of unfair individual and group attitudes and actions in years past to a great number of social problems today.
In short, yesterday's racism, slavery and abuse toward blacks is related to today's disproportionate amount of poverty, crime, dependency and other problems among blacks.
When this is explained well, no student can feel a basis of pride or a basis for retaliation.
But if teachers shrink from this task, there is no way that the principles of American Democracy can live in practice. Dr. Comer