Howard schools refocus U.S. history

November 27, 1990|By Michael J. Clark | Michael J. Clark,Howard County Bureau of The Sun

U.S. history is changing in Howard County. Gone is the suggestion that only white men shaped our nation. No longer will students learn that immigrants lose their ethnic identity in the great American melting pot.

It's all part of a pilot program to rewrite the U.S. history curriculum for eighth-graders to put more emphasis on how women, African-Americans, American Indians and other minorities have contributed to the development of our country.

"The concept of the great melting pot is on the way out," said R. William Sowders, head of the school system's social studies program. "It is sort of an Archie Bunker approach that all Americans are melted together to make one product."

The revised curriculum paints "a new picture that each ethnic group is an important piece in the American tapestry and helps create its identity while remaining part of a larger context," he said.

The movement toward changing the curriculum got its start in 1979, when the state Board of Education told local school systems to take a multicultural approach in teaching a variety of subjects.

"In all disciplines across the state, we are noticing that our multicultural bylaw is having some impact after 11 years of hard work," said Maurice B. Howard, chief of arts and sciences for the state Department of Education.

"When I went to school I learned it was only white males who had an impact on this nation, and that is so far from the truth to be unbelievable," he added. "Students now will have a greater variety of heroes to choose from in history as role models."

Mr. Sowders said revising history courses for Howard's eighth-graders had been "the most positive experience in curriculum writing in my nine years here," adding that a multicultural approach would be taken at all grade levels in the near future.

The changes are evident throughout the history course.

They can be as simple as replacing male-oriented phrases such as "founding fathers" with "writers of the Constitution," or describing Gen. George Armstrong Custer's last stand at Little Big Horn in 1876 as a battle between two nations instead of a "massacre" of white men by Indians.

Or they can be as complex as taking a more multicultural approach to traditional teachings about the exploration and discovery of the North American continent by Europeans such as Christopher Columbus.

"We are not discrediting those explorers, but we are pointing out that the Native Americans were already here," said Mr. Sowders. "Now we call the chapter 'People in the Americas' and look at the role of Native Americans, Africans and Europeans during that early period."

Teachers emphasize the cultural and spiritual contributions of American Indians, as well as "a legacy of resentment that Native Americans have resulting from the disinheritance of the land," he said.

Changes also are evident in what eighth-graders are taught about the role of African-Americans in U.S. history. Typically, Mr. Sowders said, students first learned about the role of blacks in connection with slavery.

"In the past, some youngsters unfortunately have been left with the impression that there was something wrong with blacks because they had been slaves," he said.

Now African heritage is highlighted, and students learn that so many cultures throughout history practiced slavery or serfdom that it was a part of the heritage of almost every American.

The new curriculum also pays a lot of attention to free blacks in the United States, noting that there were "100,000 free blacks living in the South on the eve of the Civil War who contributed to the economic well-being of the country."

"We are trying to dispel the 'Gone with the Wind' view of blacks in the antebellum period," Mr. Sowders said.

Similarly, he said, history teachers also emphasize the role of women who were active in promoting the abolition of slavery and urging reforms in prisons, education and treatment of the mentally ill.

"We are trying to get away from just talking about Betsy Ross, because it is important for women to understand they can play a role in the political process," Mr. Sowders said.

In making the changes, curriculum writers have walked "a real tightrope," he said. "We have tried not to overreact. We are trying to sensitize people and get them to look at the broader picture."

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