Review of the New York State Curricular Materials K–12
Focus: African American Culture

By Dr. Leonard Jeffries
Chair & Professor of the Department of Black Studies
City College of New York
November 1988


Note: The operational method of approach for this review involved dividing the curricular materials into four major categories: Humanities, sciences, special education, and social sciences. In order to more thoroughly analyze the materials, several primary aspects were delineated: Contextual relevancy and invisibility; Content stereotyping and marginality; Historical distortion and omission; Multicultural form and substance; Eurocentric conceptualization and modality; and Systems capability and development.



General Statement

African Americans have historically played a crucial role in the development of the United States. This reality has been true from the first settlements of British colonists to Virginia through the American Revolution and the Civil War, down to the present. Even when the African Americans have not been present in large numbers, the nation has been preoccupied with issues that have concerned them or their circumstances. The vital presence of the African American population has always posed a special challenge for the United States. More often than not, the unique place of African Americans has been misunderstood and this ignorance has inevitably produced hatred and fear.

African Americans represent a critical mass in the United States even though they are only 12% of the national population. They occupy strategic space and place. Although they have historically been concentrated in the South, the Great Migration since World War II has accelerated the Africanization of many Northern urban areas. As a result, this growing African American and Latin American population movement has not only changed the political, social and economic dynamics of the urban areas, it has had an enormous impact on the metropolitan school systems.

Because education plays such a vital role in the formation of our youth, the impact on African, Asian, Latin and Native Americans can not be ignored. It must be thoroughly understood and integrated into the learning processes so that the multi-cultural character of American society can be appreciated as a strength of the United States and not viewed as a weakness. The need for this type of understanding was so graphically illustrated not too long ago by the racist statements of the Japanese Prime Minister. Fortunately, the Board of Regents of the New York State Educational Department recognizes this need and has mandated it as an education goal.

It is clear from the materials presented for review and analysis that a considerable effort has been made over the past few years to revise curricula to reflect the multicultural nature of American society. These revisions represent substantial progress, particularly in the Social Studies area, but they are clearly not enough in view of the need to prepare young people for the challenges of the twenty-first century. These challenges will center, in part, around the twin reality of the "Browning of America and the World." Unfortunately, much of the curricular revisions present change in form and not substance.

In general, the curricular materials do not adequately and accurately reflect the African American experience. Individually, several syllabi represent substantial progress in portraying the multicultural nature of American society. These efforts in the education system, however, are not enough to counteract deeply rooted racist traditions in American culture. The spillover of racism into the American education system has been so profound that it has produced the "Miseducation of America." The curricula in the education systems reflect these deep-seated pathologies of racial hatred. Any action to root out this illness must be proactive and substantial in view of the generations of indoctrination and the strength of the processes of institutionalization. It is too little too late to believe that inclusion of multicultural perspectives on the pluralism of American society can reverse long established and entrenched policies and practices. Much more severe corrective action is needed to create the dynamics of positive change.

 

Goals, Objectives and Implementation

One of the major goals outlined by the Board of Regents for elementary and secondary education in New York State states clearly that "Each student will develop the ability to understand, respect and accept people of different races; sex; cultural heritage; national origin; religion; and political economic and social background, and their values, beliefs and attitudes." It also states that "each student will learn knowledge, skills and attitudes which enable development of self-esteem," as well as "the ability to maintain physical, mental and emotional health," while "understanding the ill effects of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs."

These statements and others represent a laudable attempt by the Board of Regents to include multicultural goals and objectives in their overall plan of action for New York elementary and secondary education. This framework provides the basis for development of revised curricular materials, particularly in the Social Studies area. Various education materials reviewed reflect the new directions, but there remains a fundamental problem of implementation. In fact, this dilemma is highlighted by the introductory statements which clearly show the limitations of the syllabi. It reads:

This syllabus is meant to be used by school district administrators and teachers in developing their social studies curriculum. The syllabus is a guide to curriculum development. It is a statement of the goals and objectives of the state social studies program. It is not meant to offer day-to-day lesson plans. Rather, it should be used by administrators and teachers as a guide to the selection of strategies and materials to achieve these goals and objectives. Local and regional curriculum development efforts should be directed toward those ends while making adaptations which meet local needs and goals.

The crucial factor of implementation at the local level and in the classroom cells into question even those syllabi that seriously attempt to include multi-cultural perspectives. As a result of this problematic area and others, it is clear that what has often been produced, is curricular materials which present the form of multicultural collection of families which is appropriate because the focus in the initial educational level is on social interaction and family relations. The images presented are a white family, an Asian family and an African America family. This is multiculturalism, at least in form. Upon more detailed analysis, particularly utilizing an Afrocentric perspective, it is clear that multicultural substance has been sacrificed. The white family is represented by three generations, the Asian family by two generations, and the African American family includes just a single parent. This example could be referred to as Eurocentric Multiculturalism. It reflects a large problem found in most of the materials, namely the multiculturalism developed in the syllabi is additive and not at the center of the endeavors.

 

Overview of Curricular Development

In general, the curriculum guides present clear, well thought out outlines, inventories of skills expectancies, and evaluations of competencies or proficiencies. A great deal of the material is technical and as a result, more difficult to enhance white multicultural perspectives. Consequently, the overall impression is one in which there has been a serious attempt to broaden the content to reflect the pluralism of American society, yet maintain the traditional approach. The Eurocentric perspective prevails and the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) value system and norms dominate. The in-depth feeling for African Americans and their experience is extremely ambiguous and marginalized. Very few African American individuals emerge from the outlines and assume a meaningful place in history. Rarely is one of the basic themes truly related to the African American experience. Even the suggested activities for learners and teachers omit or limit those projects that would make the understanding of pluralism more realistic. For example, during the discussion about the American Revolutionary struggle, a dialogue between Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Banneker on the question of equality could create a lasting impression on the youth of all backgrounds.

 

Selected Specific Evaluations

The shortcomings cited above are found throughout the curricular materials. Major problems are evident in terms of presentation of African American images, the frequency of appearances and their strategic place. As a result, the materials were viewed from the point of view of contextual relevancy and invisibility—there is discussion about slavery and the enslaved, but you can neither taste it or feel it. The moral outrage over the "peculiar institution" is successfully covered over by the flow of historical events.

 

Social Sciences and Ethnic Studies

The Social Studies Program, K–6

All six curricular outlines provide a standard discussion of the need for self-development and basic skills for citizenship with an emphasis on self-management skills. These skills goals for individual growth were designed to "decrease egocentric and stereotypic perceptions" and "increase the ability to empathize." While these objectives apply broadly to all young people, African American youth, because of ego starvation and negative socialization processing, have special needs that can be met by positive images and cultural experiences.

 

The Social Studies Program 7–12

A considerable effort has been made to provide a multicultural framework for these syllabi, but several significant omissions are evident. Instead of the usual content stereotyping, the African American experienced has been marginalized. In the study guides on the United States history, for example, the role of African Americans in the Revolutionary War could have been included because it is an extraordinary story of struggle against the odds and fighting for freedom on both British and American sides. This unique opportunity to include a truly significant historical experience that would improve the self-esteem of African Americans and enhance the understanding of all people was missed. This type of shortcoming and be pointed to throughout the syllabi.

Similarly, the syllabus on Global History represents progress, but contains major flaws. The unit on Africa is decidedly disappointing because it fails to clearly outline the significance of the continent to the world. The latest scientific evidence has established Africa as the birthplace of humanity and its earliest cradle of civilization. The history of the Africans of the Nile Valley is an essential ingredient needed to understand early civilizations and culture. The African factor is crucial in world history and the Nile Valley is fundamental to appreciating its significance. As a result, the fact that the Nile Valley was made invisible and removed from Africa shows how strongly Eurocentric tradition is still held. The removal of Egypt and the Nile Valley from Africa is a perfect example of the unwillingness or inability to move away from Eurocentric Conceptualization and Modality.

The special volume, United States History: The Black Perspective (1970), is an excellent example of a more in-depth and innovative treatment of African American History. These types of monographs help to improve self-esteem of neglected and defamed groups, such as African American, and instill multiculturalism in others. Traditionally the treatment of the African experience in the African continent and in the Americas is not only a question of omission or neglect, but defamation and negation. The wholesale policy of destroying the positive aspects and attributes of African Americans runs deep in the intellectual and academic tradition of America. This practice must be reversed so that the heroic struggle for equality wage by African Americans can be an inspiration to all.

The Social Studies Program 1 (1987) projects a multiculturtal image on its cover and appears to set a tone for pluralism in its content. The cover image of three family groups is repeated on the opening page introducing the "Forward." On page 1 of the section entitle "Teacher Notebook" is a multicultural image in an illustration depicting five students at work, including one Afro-American male. Over the next 65 pages there are 12 student images that do not include African American, Asian Americans or Latin Americans. At the end of the volume, there are three integrated images that include African Americans. There are obvious inconsistencies in the presentation of the multicultural image.

Social Studies Program 3 does not include a multicultural illustration on the cover like the volumes one and two; it depicts two European-American youths in school activity. This missed opportunity to project a multicultural image reflects much more profound problems and shortcomings of the K–6 syllabi. Besides the two standard illustrations that include an African American father and child, and an African American male among five students, this volume is virtually lily white or mono-cultural. After the ten images of European American students and families, there is on page 44 the first and only image of an African American female. This failure is compounded by the fact that in the syllabus Grade Three Overview, it clearly states that:

"In the grade three social studies program, students explore communities around the world. Communities are studies using five perspectives: social/cultural, political, economic, geographic, and historic. Select committees that represent the diversity of the world's cultures. Include Western and non-Western examples from a variety of geographic areas. Grade Two studies of communities in the United States can provide a base for understanding world communities. Continued emphasis is placed on self-awareness and social interaction."

It is ironic that the syllabus calls upon teachers to select communities that represent the diversity of the world's cultures and yet the selection of image illustrations for this volume holds fast to the mono-cultural perspective of European American exclusiveness.

The last of the ten goals of the Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education in New York State read:

"Each student will develop a commitment to lifetime learning with the capacity for undertaking new studies, synthesizing new knowledge and experience with the known, refining the ability to judge."

While this goal focuses on the achievement objectives of students in the school systems, it has tremendous significance for many of the decisive individuals involved in the education of the youth of New York. It is certainly hoped that the teachers and administrators have also inculpated this very significant goal. This will be a major step toward achieving meaningful multiculturalism.

Too often the growth factor for teachers and administrators becomes arrested and the "commitment to lifetime learning with the capacity for undertaking new studies" suffers. As a result, there is a limited capability or at least an unwillingness to synthesize new knowledge and experience with what has traditionally been taught and accepted as "gospel." Instead of refining the ability to judge, educators and scholars often turn away from the controversial new dimensions of truth or broader vision and retreat to outdated information, erroneous conclusion and often false and Eurocentric racists theories and judgments. For too many years education rested on a foundation based on European American misinformation, misconceptions and myths. It could be characterized as mono-cultural European Americanism or just plain "white nationalism."

Skill objectives are the next major area noted and they should be integrated with the knowledge objectives. These new skills will expose students to the latest technology which will assist them in handling and absorbing the "explosion of new knowledge and ideas that characterize contemporary society."

Finally, Attitude objectives complete the three major areas. These objectives are crucial to the development of an open-minded student who has an appreciation and personalization of the flow of human history and is able to, and read about, widely divergent points of view without making snap judgments. As a result, the student will be able to recognize and understand racial, religious, ethnic, cultural, regional and national difference without prejudice, bigotry or malice.

Attitude objectives are crucial in preparing students to accept the challenges of the 21st Century and full participation in an every shrinking Global community that has an African, Asian, and Latin majority.

 

Unit I – The Global Heritage of the American People Prior to 1500 introduces knowledge of the social scientific method and techniques used by social scientist to study human cultures and demonstrates how they can be applied to a variety of situations and problems. This unit gives the student an excellent foundation for the understanding of people and their history by providing a framework and methodology for a systematic study of human culture in this hemisphere and elsewhere.

The Pre-Columbian presence of the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere is firmly established by social science techniques. These Native American peoples, erroneously called Indians, are the foundation of the multi-cultural civilizations that would later emerge in North and South America.

 In Unit II – Geographical Factors influence Culture, there is an attempt to explain the geography of settlement of the indigenous peoples and the development of different cultural patterns. The three divisions of activities in each unit, the Content Outline; the Major Ideas; and the Model Activities, are successfully coordinated to complement each other and establish the emergence of Native American civilizations. Under the Content Outline, the various theories of migration from Asia across the land bridge at the Bering Straits are studied along with various geographic factors affecting settlement patterns and living conditions. Under Major Ideas, the students learned about the concepts of migration, settlement patterns, and diverse cultural responses influencing life styles that produced Native American civilization.

Several major Native American (indigenous) civilizations were cited for further detailed study. They included the Aztecs, the Mayas, the Incas and the Pueblo civilizations, each one of which developed a marvelous adaptation to its environment and ecology. The unit concludes that "the Native American Indian civilization had developed levels of technology that surpassed those of their European contemporaries in a number of ways." It also noted under Major Ideas that "the use of technology by the Native American Indian civilizations was often less destructive to the environment." This information on Native American was reinforced under the division of Model Activities with student projects, such as comparing the Iroquois account of creation with the archaeological findings currently available or using maps and drawings to trace migratory patterns and locate civilizations.

The syllabus for Grade 7 and 8 represent an important transitional period in educational development. The course of study for these grades should respect the diversity of the people who have been and continue to be the population of the Nation and the State of New York. If this mandate is followed, the information presented should include all Americans, not just European Americans.

 In planning for instruction, teachers must be diligent in selecting information and materials which promote self-esteem, as well as a sense of national pride in all students. In order to achieve these objectives, teachers must abandon the exclusive emphasis on European Americans which is characteristic of the traditional, Anglo-Saxon Model of education. They are compelled by the objective of inclusiveness to use their creativity to produce an effective Multicultural Model.

The objectives of the Social Studies Program Grade 7–8 have been organized around three major areas. First of all there are Knowledge Objectives, which will help the student develop an understanding of the broad, chronological sweep of United States and New York State history, as well as their linkages to Canada and Mexico. They will clarify the causes and results of the major events that have shaped the nation and the state today and impacted on the hemisphere. These knowledge objectives are designed to provide information about the origins, philosophy, structure and functioning of the governments of the United States and New York State, as well as the structure and function of the family at particular points in national history and of changes that have taken place along with the ways in which people make decision and transmit values.

The diversity and richness of Native American civilizations is further developed in Unit III, which focused on Iroquoian and Algonquian civilizations on the Atlantic Coast of North America.

This innovative and refreshing approach is further enriched by excellent resource materials on selected Native American Nations, clarifying many of their values, traditions and world views. Some of these traditions, such as the Iroquois system of governance have had an impact on the development of institutions and practices of the State of New York and the United States.

Although the first three sections of Unit I are generally well thought out and innovative, and provide a multicultural framework to help understand Pre-Columbian Native American civilization, Section IV, "European Conceptions of the World in 1500," is not satisfactory. It fails to reflect the conflict, chaos, and war which characterized Europe after the Crusades and corruption of the Roman Catholic Church. This situation in Europe contributed directly to the development of negative values and policies that produced aggressive individuals and nations that were ready to "discover, invade and conquer" foreign land because of greed, racism and national egoism.

It is imperative that the education system take the lead in searching for and presenting accurate information and truth about the much maligned Native American population. The image of the "Noble Savage," a revere Tarzan in the wilds of America, reinforced by the tragic myth of the Lone Ranger and faithful Tonto, must be destroyed if an accurate portrayal and serious understanding of native American civilization is the become reality. Similarly, the erroneous and racist attribution of Christopher Columbus as so-called "discoverer" and "civilizer" of Native Americans can be exposed as an essential part of the ideology of "White nationalism" designed to justify the exploitation and eventual genocide of indigenous Americans. This unit has effectively projected the history and development of Native Americans and exposed the truth about their civilizations, value systems, and world views. As a result, it has helped destroy the historical distortions and deliberate falsifications about the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

This unit is an essential first step in understanding the true multicultural nature of American society in general and in particular, New York State.

Unit III – A Nation is Created is designed to enable students to describe and analyze major historical factors in the early development of the United States; demonstrate an understanding of the historic, economic, social and political roots of American Culture; and discuss the nature and effects of change on societies and individuals. The first section of this unit focuses on the "Background Causes of the American Revolution," citing economic factors, political factors and new social relationships. Although a number of crucial factors are a part of the content outline, the pivotal role of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade system is not highlighted. In spite of the fact that economic factors involving the growth of mercantilism and the rise of an influential business community in the colonies are enumerated, the factors are not related to slavery. Ignored are the foundations of a commercial system linking land, labor and resources while trying together Europe, Africa and the Americas in an unholy alliance of exploitation and dehumanization.

In the section on The Shift From Protest to Separation, the student is supposed to understand how colonists' concerns regarding political and economic issues resulted in the movement for independence. It is pointed out that British taxation and legislative policy acted to widen the rift between the Mother Country and its colonies, and opened the way to independence. At no point in the material covered in the Content Outline, or the issues raised under Major Ideas or the projects suggested under Model Activities, is the question of the mutual profits from the slavery trade system raised. It is again treated as a non-issue. Under Model Activities, the use of autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is mentioned as a means to examine issues. Similarly, the biography of Benjamin Franklin is mentioned as a means to examine issues. Similarly, the biography of Benjamin Banneker would provoke and interesting discussion of the ideas of Thomas Jefferson on race and a free African America.

The third section of this unit deals with the Early Attempts to Govern The Newly Independent States and how the colonist attempted to establish new forms of self-government. It focuses on the Declaration of Independence as the Revolution begins and deals with its origins, content, impact and ideals. It is suggested that students rewrite all or part of the Declaration of Independence in their own works and consider such issues as to whether the document is a statement of ideals or a list of grievances, and to what extent have these ideals been achieved. Once again, we look for the pivotal issue of slavery and we do not find it mentioned in the Declaration of Independence in 1776. However, if we study the first draft of the Declaration that Thomas Jefferson presented to the Continental Congress in 1775, we find the major indictment against King George V of England was his imposition of the odious slave system on the freedom loving colonists. Jefferson was pressured to drop this key indictment when he presented his final draft in 1776. As a result, the leaders of the Revolutionary Movement compromised on higher ideals regarding the status of African Americans. This compromising posture at the birth of the Nation would set the tone and pattern that would be followed throughout the history of The Republic. Deeply rooted in the development of the United States of America is the policy of sacrificing higher ideals on the alter of materialism and profit mankind, particularly when African American interests are involved. This process of conflict, compromise and contradiction has also been the reality for Native Americans, Asian Americans and Latino Americans.

 

Section IV, Military and Political Aspects of the Revolution presents an excellent opportunity to include multicultural involvement in the war, but the authors of the Syllabus did not take advantage of the unique role played by African Americans and Native Americans. They are mentioned as one of the factors influencing the outcome of the war. However, the particular role of African Americans present a special story of courage and valor as they fought on both sides of the war, first for the British who promised them freedom and later for the Americans who were forced to promise the same things. They were not fighting to preserve an empire like the British or protect their economic interest like the colonists; they were fighting strictly for freedom.

 

In Unit IV – Experiments in Government, are highlighted in order to enable the student to appreciate the principles and ideals of a democratic system based on the premises of human dignity, liberty, justice and equality. The first section concentrates on the Articles of Confederation and provides an effective framework for understanding political participation, and the strengths and weaknesses of the initial plans for a formal plan of government. The first item under the historical precedents is the Iroquois Confederacy and its impact. Another important historical model was the New York State constitution of 1777 which established at bicameral legislature, state courts and included various rights and liberties. It was a model for later United States Constitutional development in 1787. The process of writing, structuring and adopting the United States Constitution and recognizing its historical significance, is effectively presented in the following section. A wide variety of issues are covered, such as the limits of power, national versus state level, representation, slaves and apportionment. The various compromises are covered, including the three-fifths compromise over southern representation.

In spite of the unique democratic processes established during the period of the United States Constitutional development, it should be made clear that the constitution of 1789 was a seriously flawed document. While it provided a flexible pragmatic framework for growth and development, it locked out the majority of the population in the United States of America. In essence, it was a limited democracy for a restricted citizenry. It was the embodiment of the White Male with Property Model. Out of the constitutional process of compromise and pragmatism "a republican form of government emerged to place the citizens at the focal point of a new and unique democracy," the new government established by the United States Constitution combines strength and limitations. And even though it has often been described as a "bundle of compromises," this quality is part of the documents' strength. Under Major Ideas, the syllabus states that, "The United States Constitution was an advanced revolutionary plan of government in its time and remains so today." It further notes that "the Constitution represents the embodiment of the belief in human dignity, liberty, justice, and equality in theory, but not always in practice." Unfortunately, this type of "White Nationalism" or egocentrism blinds us as the flawed nature of the processes, and the document and the subsequent political system that emerged and evolved through the years.

In Unit V, The Constitution of the United States is presented as a living document with an elastic clause and delegated power, along with an amendment procedure as a mechanism for change. The written document has endured, with relatively few modifications, because of built-in procedures which accommodate changes in American society. This process is described as a series of practices and procedures which evolved into an "unwritten constitution." Some of the institutions that emerged out of the "unwritten constitution" were political parties, the president's cabinet and committee system in congress. These institutions were effective vehicles for articulating and aggregating the interests of the rich and powerful, the true benefactors of The new Anglo-Saxon Model.

From the birth of the United States of America between 1776 and 1789, the dynamics of The Other America began to manifest itself. The Whiskey Rebellion was a signal of the reaction of various groups that believed that they were locked out of the decision-making in the New Nation. The African American Community began to lay the foundations of its institutional base from which it would wage a continual struggle to make The Other America an integral part of The United States. This institutional base was built around the church, the fraternal orders and the schools. All of these institutions can trace their roots back to the Revolutionary Era and especially to events occurring in 1787. This was the year that Prince Hall, who fought in the American Revolution, is credited with having established the Masonic movement among African Americans. Interestingly, he had to obtain a Free Masonry Charter from the British because America's Anglo-Saxon elite refused his request even though he was a comrade-in-arms and had fought for the independence of the colonists. Similarly, in 1787, racist exclusionary action by another segment of the victorious Anglo-Saxon elite in Philadelphia helped to initiate the separate African American church system. Richard Allen and Abselom Jones were interrupted while worshipping at a European American church by racist officials. They left the church and later established the African Society, which eventually became the seed of the African Methodist Church movement. The third institutional building block of the African American communities was symbolized by the establishments of the African Free Schools in New York also in 1787.

From this institutional foundation of churches, fraternal orders and schools, the African American communities has been able to mount its two hundred year old struggle to expand the Anglo-Saxon Model and make it truly the multicultural Democratic model that encompasses all of the people.

Life in the New Nation is the subject of Unit 5 and is designed to provide an understanding of how the United States of America established itself and began to operate. One of the Major Ideas of this unit was summarized as follows:

Victory in the Revolution helped ensure the idea that this was a republic wherein each citizen had obligations and a duty to participate in the Political System.

This global sentiment of political participation became a reality throughout the New Republic for groups that were chartered members of the Anglo-Saxon Model, as well as those who were part of the Outsider Model and were legally excluded from full citizenship rights because of racial, religious, sexual or property qualifications.

Some scholars have suggested that it would serve our people better to view the Constitution period and its documents and policies as the "Unfinished Revolution." Others have stated that the Constitution addresses the propertied classes and their rights and privileges, but is silent with reference to the majority of the population, "The Other America." It has been the struggles of "The Other America" that has made the constitutional promise and potential a reality for the majority. They have been engaged in a constant struggle for civil rights for the past two hundred years. In some instances, the struggle intensified and involved war and destruction. In particular cases, the struggle sunk to the level of dehumanization and genocide.

Somehow or other, there is something vulgar and revolting in glorifying in a process that heaped undeserved rewards on a segment of the population while oppressing the majority. Perhaps the insensitivity to the plight of the unfortunate is rooted in this concept of "White Nationalism" that has allowed countless individuals to escape reality and not focus on some critical issues and problems.

Too often "The Other America" is rendered invisible or marginal so that the true multicultural character of American society is denied substance and value.


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