History and Repetition: Removing the Cloaks for Socially Just Practices
“There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away[.]”
—Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886), from Poem 1263
I was an adolescent in the 1990s when I first read Emily Dickinson’s poem “There Is No Frigate Like a Book.” After reading the poem twice and asking myself some questions as a reader, I used the American Heritage Dictionary and learned that a frigate could be a light boat or even a kind of warship. I was drawn to Dickinson’s language use and arts to communicate the human need for escape and also to travel through one’s imagination—accompanied by books—for an adventurous journey.
If it were not for our teacher, Mr. Lincoln Pettaway, inviting us to question what we read and guiding us to challenge the ideas in our textbook World History: People and Nations, Texas Edition (Mazour & Peoples, 1990), I doubt I would have gained the mindfulness and persistence for deeper thinking as an adolescent student and reader (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. World History Textbook.
Cover of the history textbook adopted in 1989 and used in a high school in Houston, Texas.
While reading history and even literature via state-approved textbooks, students can gain a humanist-oriented education with metacognitive inquiry and self-efficacy practices. Students can be guided by teachers and teacher educators who practice critical and multimodal literacies.
My interest in becoming a teacher began when I was in grade school and carries me forward as a teacher educator today. Through the years, I remember the approaches, methods, and strategies used by many of my teachers in my schooling and in my becoming educated. In fact, I recall my study of prehistoric cultures and civilizations during high school that also included the contributions by the Egyptians, Sumerians, Phoenicians, Lydians, Hebrews, Indians, Chinese, and numerous dynasties and empires.
As we advanced to the Mediterranean world in history class, Mr. Pettaway asked us to examine the textbook authors’ point of view in the opening of “Chapter 6: Greek Civilization Triumphed During the Golden Age and the Hellenistic Age, 478 B.C. – 148 B.C.” First, there was reluctance from us to open the book during our final class period of the day. However, we persisted and opened the book to Chapter 6, Section 2. Second, we rarely questioned texts we read in school and much less the tellers of history. This was a new learning move we were invited to consider and adopt.
Mr. Pettaway said, “Students, start by reading the two sentences before the section on Socrates. Then, write down in your notebook what you believe the historians Mazour and Peoples want us to understand.” This encouragement was welcome and sustaining to keep going in the labor of reading. We read:
The Greeks have been honored through the ages for their artistic and intellectual achievements. No people before them—and few since—have demonstrated so clearly the capacity of the human hand and mind. (p. 128)
Figure 2. Passage from World History: People and Nations, Texas Edition (1990)
The textbook authors Anatole G. Mazour and John M. Peoples recognize one civilization to the point of editorializing with bias and ethnocentrism.
The authors Mazour and Peoples attempted to “take us lands away” like the speaker in Dickinson’s poem states, except in this case the narrative was cloaked with inaccuracies and also misleading histories (see Figure 2). Instead, Mazour and Peoples—and even other professors, curriculum specialists, and field test teachers in complicity as members of the Editorial Review Board—favored inaccurate portrayals and intentional exclusion of civilizations that contributed then and now to the humanities—all across the ages and globe. (In fact, we find new discoveries about human inventiveness as reported by journalists and researchers around the world every day.)
Through the textbook, we learned about whose civilizations mattered most in the ethnocentric vision of the authors and Editorial Review Board, while also considering Socrates, Sophists, and philosophers. Even the calendar created by Pope Gregory XIII, which was introduced in October 1582, dominated the wobbly, one-sided textbook. These practices favored ethnocentrism with limiting points of view—all in the cloaked guise of innocence, merit, and objectivity.
In “Linking Autonomy and Humanity,” Wiel Veugelers explained, “Human beings have the possibility to give meaning to their lives and to create coherence in experiences. [. . .] Education, in the family, in civic institutions, and at school, can contribute to young people’s meaning giving processes” (p. 2). A teacher possesses the power to remain complicit or to create change by inviting students to think and question to gain greater understanding. In our case as readers of history, Mr. Pettaway was guiding us to make our thinking known and audible and secondary-school scholars in formation.
Teachers like Mr. Pettaway—and many others here in the United States and around the world—understand the ways we humans can make meaning and can come to name ourselves and the societies we live in, study, and understand. Sometimes these teachers are also historians and philosophers today and across schools and institutions.
In addition, students can join the conversation in the age of fake news, mistold truths, and untold facts. The series Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen is an example of books that provide readers more artifacts and primary sources about the conflicts and drama in the making and writing of American history and public monuments (see Figure 3).
Figure 3. Book Cover of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Young Readers’ Edition (2019).
James W. Loewen’s book was adapted for young readers and makes American history come alive through challenges, conflicts, and dissenting views.
Forms of bias, bigotry, colonialism, ethnocentrism, and racism appear in our everyday lives and require deeper study and dialogue to uncloak the untold through our pedagogical work. Daily, people stand up for the common good and for the humanities in our classrooms across the country (Nieto, 2013). Their contributions and labors make the humanities remain alive with truths to uncover and restore.
For instance, just last year Susan Goldberg (2018), the tenth editor of National Geographic, shared the results of a research study conducted by the historian John Edwin Mason on the magazine’s coverage of people around the world and since its founding in 1888. Goldberg stated,
[U]ntil the 1970s National Geographic all but ignored people of color who lived in the United States, rarely acknowledging them beyond laborers or domestic workers. Meanwhile it pictured ‘natives’ elsewhere as exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages—every type of cliché. Unlike magazines such as Life, Mason said, National Geographic did little to push its readers beyond the stereotypes ingrained in White American culture.
The editor’s courage and also honesty to communicate the harm and injustice a U.S. mainstream periodical committed over a century and spread around the world are testimonies of change, hope, and vision.
History and repetition must be challenged by removing the cloaks of authors and institutions for socially just practices and teaching to unfold in our classrooms. One recent resource is the booklet titled Speak Up at School: How to Respond to Everyday Prejudice, Bias and Stereotypes (2018) by Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Figure 4. Cover of Speak Up at School (2018).
Teaching Tolerance provides numerous resources with the mission to “to help teachers and schools educate children and youth to be active participants in a diverse democracy.”
In addition, the pocket guide and mini-video to assemble it provide immediate and responsive action for students and all of us to take as upstanders who can remove cloaks for change, progress, and humane treatment in our lives (see Figure 4).
The work of teachers in the lives of students and their colleagues is immense and life-changing through small, yet necessary and essential, acts of questioning and deeper thinking. Sometimes the work we do requires an openness to our students’ stories, which are filled with doubts, fears, knowledge, questions, and wisdom.
In the book Teaching, a Life’s Work: A Mother–Daughter Dialogue (2019), Sonia Nieto and Alicia López shared their visions and values for teaching and learning (see Figure 5). They noted, “Every student has a story and every student needs an adult to watch out for them in school. Knowing a student’s story can give teachers great insights into who they are, both in the classroom and out” (p. 54).
Figure 5. Book Cover of Teaching, a Life’s Work: A Mother–Daughter Dialogue (2019).
Sonia Nieto and Alicia López share their teaching journeys and include the challenges and joys of a teaching, fulfilling life among students, families, and colleagues.
If history can become an act of repetition, then we must enact multiliteracies with our students for learning and understanding by removing the cloaks in our lands and shores for socially just practices to unfold in our classrooms and teaching. We can “watch out” for each other in our schools, through the books we adopt and question, and in our professional dialogue for socially just experiences in our learning institutions. In our teaching journeys with our students, we possess the intellect and imagination to name history as it is unfolding and to change course.
Dickinson, E. (n.d.). There is no frigate like a book [Poem 1263]. Retrieved from https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/there-no-frigate-book-1263.
Goldberg, S. (2018, April). For decades, our coverage was racist. To rise above our past, we must acknowledge it. National Geographic Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/04/from-the-editor-race-racism-history/
Loewen, J. W. (2019). Lies my teacher told me, Young readers’ edition: Everything American history textbooks get wrong. New York, NY: The New Press.
Mazour, A. G., & Peoples, J. M. (1990). World History: People and Nations, Texas Edition. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.
Nieto, S. (2013). Finding joy in teaching students of diverse backgrounds: Culturally responsive and socially just practices in U.S. classrooms. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Nieto, S., & López, A. (2019). Teaching a life’s work: A mother–daughter dialogue. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Teaching Tolerance. (2018). Speak up at school: How to respond to everyday prejudice, bias and stereotypes. Montgomery, AL: Teaching Tolerance, Southern Poverty Law Center.
Veugelers, W. (2011). Introduction: Linking autonomy and humanity. In W. Veugelers (Ed.), Education and humanism: Linking autonomy and humanity (pp. 1-7). Rotterdam, Netherlands: Sense Publishers.
R. Joseph Rodríguez teaches in the Kremen School of Education and Human Development at California State University, Fresno. He is the author of Enacting Adolescent Literacies across Communities: Latino/a Scribes and Their Rites (2017) and Teaching Culturally Sustaining and Inclusive Young Adult Literature: Critical Perspectives and Conversations (2019) as well as several articles and poems in academic journals. Catch him virtually @escribescribe, or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This blog post is part of the #31DaysTOC Blog Challenge, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by Nessa Perez (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog circle).