The American Scholar: The Problem in the Classroom

Any true reckoning with racism must include our schools

By Jon Hale | July 30, 2020

As I have watched our nation reassess, these past few months, which monuments are worthy of public veneration and how we contend with the legacy of the Confederate flag, I have become convinced that the more urgent problem we face is how to implement lasting structural change in a country plagued by racism and racial inequality. Having spent many years working in education, I am also convinced that one place we must focus our attention is our public schools.

The schoolhouse became a particularly contentious space after the Civil War, when the nation grappled with Reconstruction. In the South, schools were the battleground from which to propagate the mythology of the Lost Cause, the narrative that enslaved persons were treated kindly and that the Confederacy’s principal reason for war was the noble defense of states’ rights—not the preservation of slavery. It was determined throughout the South, with implicit support from across the nation, that policies behind enslavement, segregation, and institutional racism, which shaped the daily lives of Americans since the founding of the nation, would not be taught. Textbooks were carefully monitored and teachers were trained to maintain the false narrative.

Lewis Guion was one such defender of the Lost Cause. Having served as a captain for a Louisiana division of the Confederate Army, Guion had a keen interest in promoting his interpretation of the “War Between the States.” After his service to the Confederacy, Guion chaired the history committee that reviewed every textbook for the state of Louisiana, taking his new duties as seriously as his ones on the battlefield. His criticisms were exact and damning. When one textbook made a single reference to Booker T. Washington, at the time a widely respected Black educator from Alabama, Guion took great offense. “Any publisher,” Guion reported to the Louisiana Board of Education in 1909, “that has so little business sense, or is so unsupportive of the southern people, should be taught to take his educational wares elsewhere.” After reviewing a composition and rhetoric textbook that included a favorable passage on Abraham Lincoln, Guion declared: “It is very evident that a determined effort is being made to place before southern children Lincoln as a hero. If Lincoln was right and to be admired to the exclusion of Jefferson Davis, then the Confederate soldiers were all wrong and traitors. Is this Board prepared to have the children so taught?”

The school board agreed, and textbook publishers fell into line, steering clear of anything “controversial” that would turn off potential consumers in the South—a major market, since the number of public schools grew after the war. Guion and the legion of Confederate gatekeepers wielded significant influence over public schools—a system that in the South, ironically, was founded by African Americans. Whereas southern states had explicitly forbidden the education of enslaved persons as a mechanism to maintain the system of slavery, during the brief period of Reconstruction, newly elected Black representatives rightly viewed education as the pathway to liberation and freedom. Some of the first legislative acts constructed a public school system for all children, even as Confederate defenders became invested in controlling those schools to preserve their own power.

…(read more).

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