The School District of Philadelphia made a recent decision that its 52,807 high school students are required to take an African American history class in addition to their existing American history class. This raises a troubling question as to how the universal history of the United States will be shaped in students’ minds.
At higher levels of education, an African American history requirement is not a particularly bad idea. That’s not to say it is always a good idea. While high school students should learn about the African American experience in the history of the United States, it is potentially damaging to imply that the narrative of our nation’s history cannot be told without the inclusion of the different minority groups who have contributed to its development.
This means that the impact of blacks on American history should be incorporated into the standard history class and not separated into what amounts to a division in curriculum.
Any country’s history that omits the experiences of its racial groups is incomplete. In the U.S.’s case, that includes African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, European Americans, Hispanics and every other group’s influence in shaping our country. An additional class to examine the story of black Americans is no more the answer than a dozen additional classes, each singularly examining a different group.
Rather, history classes themselves should include the intertwined relationships of America with its people and its people’s relationships with each other. Just as America’s story cannot be truly understood without black history, black history is baseless without the inclusion of the history of all Americans – white, black or otherwise.
Obviously, if Philadelphia’s only options were a history class as it currently stood or adding an African American history requirement as an appendage of that class, then the school district made the correct choice. Upon further examination, however, school officials probably would have found that keeping one history class would have been fine given a few tweaks to the topics of study and to the way important points in history are approached.
Addition without any actual improvement equals a sum of zero. Philadelphia schools should improve what they have in place before trying to add parts that are not certain of being any more complete.
The most important thing for our educational system is first to teach minority youths that they are critical and inseparable from our nation’s history and second to make sure the rest of society knows there is no America without American minorities. The bottom line is that two classes are not necessary unless they both fail to tell an acceptable amount of the whole story on their own. And that turns a problem regarding one class into a problem with two.
Philadelphia high school students need to learn that African Americans are a part of – not apart from – American history.
Ben Watanabe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.