The new agenda — isn’t

Jean-François Millet, The Gleaners, 1857

The new agenda, offered through workshops and eventually (I’m quite sure) to be required at “cultural competency” training, seems quite new. It isn’t new, of course, as any historian knows. The vocabulary has changed. We now talk of equity, cultural awareness, and social justice, instead of equality, multiculturalism, and civil rights. But many of us have been on a mission to tell the stories of all, especially those whose voices weren’t heard, for a very long time.

Even before the critiques and student activism of the 1960s, when a “relevant” curriculum was demanded, there has been a desire to have the curriculum reflect the interests, contributions, and stories of non-elites. What we have called these groups varies: disenfranchised, minority, ethnic, immigrant, underserved, disadvantaged — all these point to those who had little power under the dominant or mainstream system.

The approach to history has been to gather as many voices as possible, and to share perspectives of different groups. Those of us who read Howard Zinn, or studied Marxist historians, were tuned in early in our careers to the non-elite views, and the ways in which such people were taken advantage of and deliberately excluded from the rest of “western” and American history. Social history, which looked closely at the lives of those who weren’t elite, didn’t write, or left little behind but the fruits of their labor, began as a formal sub-discipline in the 1940s. Textbooks have taken account of non-elites for some time.

Eyre Crowe, Slaves Waiting for Sale, Richmond, Virginia, 1861.

By criticizing the actions of our nations (or even the idea of nation itself), and critiquing their values, historians could be revolutionary. Anyone with even a smattering of the Hegelian dialectic knows that forces arise, other forces arise to oppose them, and both sides change as a result of the conflict, creating a different force to also be opposed in its turn. In grad school, I studied Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm. Even in the medieval studies program, I was looking at the lives and conflicts of craftsmen and merchants, not the kings and military leaders.

When I first began putting together a primary source book for my American history class in the early 1990s, I didn’t consciously think about creating a particular type of book. I just wanted to assign the documents that I thought were pertinent to studying the modern era of the United States. I’m not sure I could explain why I felt that I didn’t just need Martin Luther King and Gloria Steinem, but also Carey McWilliams and Lois Gibbs.

Teaching one of my early classes, a student asked me on the first day, “what will you do to make this class interesting to me?” And I thought for a moment and said, “it won’t be me — it will be the sources I give you”. He looked doubtful, and on the last day of class he said, “you were right that first day!”  Another student told me my documents workbook was an “activist document”, saying that every primary source I’d assigned was somehow about non-elite people fighting to make the country better, to right its wrongs. I hadn’t realized I’d done that.

Geronimo (Goyaałé), a Bedonkohe Apache; kneeling with rifle, 1887

So now all we have to do is be conscious about it. Those of us doing it for decades need to be aware that the new agenda folks see it differently, as equity instead of equality, and often, as something that can be legislated from the “new” top down (i.e. sensitivity training) rather than something that must, by its very nature, bubble up from the grass roots.

And one way to do that is to respect the traditions of historical scholarship, not fly off into post-modernist revisionism in order to make the narrative fit our views. It has to be the other way around.

Most curricular standards today have at their foundation two things: method and content. Method is the traditional historiographic method, based on the modernist principles of the past being knowable (although never completely knowable) through existing sources and their reinterpretation. Content is the list of “events” and other facts that are forced upon us by those who want us to teach certain “things”.

The way to change the elitist perspective, now as then, is to focus on the examples, the primary sources. There were times when, teaching about abolitionism in antebellum America, the words of William Lloyd Garrison were studied more often than those of Frederick Douglass. That changed because teachers assigned Frederick Douglass as an example of abolitionist thought. Instead of teaching from secondary sources, where educated voices interpreted the lives of the uneducated, one could read the words of ordinary people. Yesterday, for example, I had the pleasure of substituting for a class in European History, and the students had been assigned Roman graffiti from Pompeii, and Tacitus’ Germania. They like the graffiti better, because it was more immediate, it was about ordinary people by those people, rather than an outsider looking at them.

Lois Gibbs at work

Primary sources are so important because interpretations in secondary sources (such as articles and textbooks) can turn all the “disenfranchised” people into one-dimensional victims of the “system”. The difficulty with application of the “systematic racism” viewpoint isn’t the facts (it does exist) but in its misuse, where the interpreter portrays people as powerless, without agency. I have encountered this many times in works on American Indians, where the author is so eager to assuage national guilt that the Indians are portrayed as defenseless, weak, child-like people, lacking agency, philosophy, or any motivation beyond defense.

To recover the stories of the disenfranchised is to recover their entire humanity, what they could and did achieve in spite of systematic attack or neglect. That’s why my workbook is, as my student said, an “activist document”, because understanding the thinking and actions of such people creates a better kind of heroism, as valuable as anything Homer gave us, people to admire and emulate because they got women the vote, or got Love Canal cleaned up.  Ultimately, such heroism made people acknowledge that the “other” was not so other after all.

Dan Wynn, Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman-Hughes, 1971

That’s why it is particularly inappropriate that in some places, history is under attack, and colleges are decreasing the number of history classes needed for a degree. We’re taking away the best tools when people need them most.

So for teachers (instructors, professors) the implementation of the new agenda should not be a call to change our methods, rather (if we are deficient in them) to add more voices. We should ignore those agenda-bearers who claim that history itself is a culprit, a tool for removing agency and equity. Those of us who have worked for decades on these issues, we know the sources are there. Those who haven’t need to assign the voices that let the larger past speak.



4 comments to The new agenda — isn’t

  • John Mackness

    I think this is an important message for all teachers where the ‘here and now’ is being discussed in terms of history (what has been) and possible futures (what could happen). Listening to the ‘voices’ of those involved rather than the ‘agenda-bearers’ helps to understand different perspectives about the ‘truth’ of the situation.

    • Lisa M Lane

      Thank you, John. It hadn’t occurred to me but there are indeed any number of subjects that use heritage or history contextually, and could expand their coverage to be more inclusive.

  • jmm

    I can’t be the only person deeply offended by the implication that because I’m white (not my fault!) I have to be coaxed via workshop to include a diversity of voices in my course material.

    I feel like saying Duckling, I was marching for this before you were born.

    It also bugs me that only some voices qualify for underrepresented status. Every activist subcategory seems perfectly okay with ignoring other subcategories, contributing (however unconsciously) to the tribalism and fragmentation of the human species. Which, of course, just further secures the power of the top class…don’t get me started.

    • Lisa M Lane

      Perhaps we should get you (and many others) started. Because this, of course, is the problem with categorization all together. Like nationalism, it leads to sub-nationalisms and diverse horrors. Unapologetic integrationists need to stand up (and even offer workshops on diversity of voices). And by “more” voices, of course, I mean all of the “more”, including those who are (for whatever reason, now as well as then) are excluded. And it is important to use the most recent vocabulary to trumpet these goals.