Past Really Is Prologue…That Matters To Effective Reform

This obit of Gary Nash is a good reminder that most of what’s considered new, and a ‘real moment,’ is usually a rehash of earlier ‘real’ moments. There is a presentism that pervades a lot of debates today about social questions, generally and in our sector. And not for the better.

At a trivial level you actually hear people say things like, ‘finally we’re debating how we teach history’ or ‘until now no one really cared that curriculum wasn’t always inclusive.’ This would be news to Nash, almost anyone who served on a state board of education, or many advocates who drew a breath in the last three decades – and, in fact, before that.

But presentism has more serious implications as well. For instance, in 2016 or 2017 I was at a meeting where one big theme was the question of how much the “ed reform movement” (whatever that means) should throw its lot in wholesale with Black Lives Matter, notwithstanding BLMs hostility to charter schools. When it was pointed out that James Clyburn was both not on board with throwing charters over the side and had some other disagreements with BLM as well, more than a few folks were like “who is James Clyburn, why does this matter?” For the record, until Kamala Harris was sworn in as VP this year he was the highest ranking Black elected official in the country and later was instrumental in Joe Biden’s turnaround in the 2020 primaries. I’m generally a Clyburn fan given his common sense approach to politics and helping people in their lives, but my point is not about the merits of anyone’s position on charters. It’s just that some reformers were hastily and enthusiastically jumping into a play in the second or third act with little sense of broader context and history. And in the process they were picking sides in fights they really didn’t understand and where well intentioned people could be found on all sides.

“CRT” is another, timely, example. You have people, on all sides, completely spun up about an issue few of them had heard of at this time last year. Now it’s the most important thing – until another most important thing inevitably supersedes it. When people say schools are not teaching CRT that’s generally dismissed as a bad faith argument because everyone gets that some of what is being debated are things schools are doing that are grounded in CRT. (It’s like arguing schools aren’t teaching religion unless teachers are literally reading Genesis or Luke to the kids, no one would buy that). There are certainly some folks who know better, but I’m not at all sure it is a bad faith argument in all cases. I’d argue the intense presentism means a lot of people are parroting or are just confused. Again, the point is not pro-or-anti CRT, just that this is a bad way to have a conversation. You can play that out on a host of issues.

Likewise, too many DEI workshops now reduce the LGBT experience to pronouns and other contemporary issues like sports access. Those things matter, yes, but there is too often little discussion of the history of activism and social change that helped get us to where we are today. You’re more likely to hear about who threw the first brick at Stonewall than about Bayard Rustin or Barbara Gittings or even Harvey Milk. We’re poorer for that. It seems hard to understand the problems with exclusion today if you don’t appreciate all the human, and by extension societal, potential lost because of exclusionary ways of life, policies, and practices. And, likewise, it’s hard to appreciate the efficacy and possibility of change if you don’t appreciate just how much there has been. Obergefell and Bostok, for example, are remarkable achievements.

And of course the tendentious debate about history and school choice always makes you want to reach for a Percocet.

The point here is not that everything should be a history seminar. Or to say that there are not serious problems today, which has become a popular bad faith reading of anyone who dares to point out that the country has made remarkable progress on many social issues even as there is more to do. Rather, it’s a more practical concern: If your animating idea right now is that too many schools put a reductionist frame on things or teach incomplete accounts of history or contested issues then it seems to follow that you, too, should resist a similar tendency in how adults, and especially leaders, approach things.

Related posts…Those who forget history are doomed to debate it, the debate about culturally relevant curriculum is a phony war, the CRT debate isn’t about trust, it’s about curriculum, this sector’s leadership has a blinkered take on politics. Ban CRT?