Terrie Epstein (1998) points to multiple levels of disconnects between stakeholders in understanding the underlying curricular issues involved in teaching United States history in American schools. At one level, adult curriculum writers/policy makers offer three distinct modalities for studying United States history vis-à-vis dominant and race-based issues. Two other levels become apparent when a group of 11th grade students were asked to categorize how they constructed the patterns of United States history. Divided nearly equally between African-American and European-American students, this group was clearly divided along racial lines as to how they constructed meaning from events in American history, about the sources they relied upon for construction of meaning from historical events, and upon the importance of events themselves. Epstein “point[s] out the limitations of current public school history curricular frameworks” as she compares existing curriculum to student perceptions of that curriculum. She causes the reader to think about issues of race and perception and the failure of curriculum to meet the challenges of the diversity of experience that contributes to the construction of historical meaning in schools today.
Epstein’s work points to the tyranny of the public education system as it imposes itself upon the recipients of its largess. While hardly anyone suggests that students ought to or are fully capable of articulating curriculum in history (or any other subject for that matter) the fact that curriculum writers/policy makers fail to consider either the experience, cultural or otherwise, or attitudes brought to the classroom as a part of the development of curriculum is, it seems to me, a gross error in judgment leading to what Stanley Fish (1999) has referred to as boutique multiculturalism, an approach to diversity that merely scratches the surface and has no substance. Boutique multiculturalism is quickly recognized by those on the margins who understand that eating tacos on Cinco de Mayo merely pays lip-service to the contributions of Mexican-Americans in the story of the United States. Members of the dominant culture have significant difficulty in recognizing the differences that exist underneath the dominant story.
The issue here is really two-fold. First, there is the issue of understanding multiple story lines as they both coincide and diverge from the main story of the United States. In itself, this is a difficult undertaking as it seeks to deconstruct the hegemonic weight of the dominant story. The second issue is one of consent. If the learner fails to connect to the mainstream, hegemonic story, that learner withholds his or her consent leaving the curriculum being taught merely an imposition on the already vibrant construction of historical events and the meaning of those events to the learner.
Following Epstein, I want to suggest that curriculum writers/policy makers pay close attention to the diversity of experience of the learners they are dedicated to serve. By doing so, they will help foster a mutuality of purpose that must lead to the incorporation of the confluences of multiple historical narratives.
Epstein, T. (1998). Deconstructing differences in African-American and European-American adolescents’ perspectives on U. S. history. Curriculum Inquiry, 28(4), 397-423.
Fish, S. (1999). The trouble with principle. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.