Demanding education reform is something of an American political tradition: schools have been in one stage of reform or another since the Eisenhower administration. But somehow, like Achilles pursuing a tortoise, the schools are never actually reformed. More effort, more programs, and more (much more!) money are always needed.
But even after six-plus decades of enthusiastic reform, an Illinois Democrat has found a way to be original. On Sunday night, State Rep. La Shawn Ford delivered the well-trod complaint that history classes focus too much on the achievements of white men. The classes must change, to deemphasize pale males and highlight the accomplishments of women and minority groups.
So far so standard — yet, in a novel twist, Ford added that until the new curriculum can be designed, Illinois history classes should be abolished. That is not a joke; Cockburn is not having a jolly jest at the expense of The Spectator’s readers. The news release from Ford’s own office is quite literally titled ‘Rep. Ford Today in Evanston to Call for the Abolishment of History Classes in Illinois Schools.’ Until Ford is satisfied with how the past is presented, it is best for schoolchildren to pretend the past does not exist at all.
Now, admittedly, America has so little history that abolishing its study might be thought to have little impact on instruction. Nevertheless, Cockburn is troubled. The Democratic party has had absolute control of the Illinois legislature every year since 2003. The typical senior in an Illinois high school has gone their entire life without the trauma of seeing Republicans control the state’s schools. Is Illinois’s history curriculum really so toxic and destructive that it must be stopped immediately? Are the state’s high school history teachers some heretofore unnoticed fascist cabal? Cockburn is skeptical.
In fact, Cockburn can’t help but speculate that Ford may have made his demand without bothering to look at the state’s existing textbooks, or its existing laws. Ford’s official statement laments that ‘current history teaching practices overlook the contributions by Women and members of the Black, Jewish, LGBTQ communities and other groups.’ But just last year, the Illinois legislature passed a bill requiring that all public schools teach students about the historical contributions of gay, bisexual, and transgender people. In fact, Ford voted for it. And Illinois has already required black history in schools since 1991; a bill passed just last year expands that mandate to the state’s public colleges. Illinois was also the first state in America to mandate Holocaust education.
Cockburn’s cursory look through the Illinois school code finds an almost suffocating number of mandates in the school’s history instruction. In addition to covering the contributions of black Americans to the country, schools are also required to specifically note the contributions of Poles, Lithuanians, Bohemians, and Albanians. Not only is Hispanic history required, but schools must cover ‘the forceful removal and illegal deportation of Mexican-American US citizens during the Great Depression’.
The more Cockburn reads, the more he suspects that Ford simply finds legislating far more enjoyable than reading. Ford himself recently introduced a bill that would specifically require school instruction on the American civil rights movement. That would be perfectly fine, except the Illinois school code already mandates instruction in ‘the socioeconomic struggle which African Americans experienced collectively in striving to achieve fair and equal treatment under the laws of this nation’.
If anything, the call to suspend history classes would make far more sense coming from the right than the left. There is no evidence of widespread right-wing revanchism among America’s history teachers. On the other hand, 100,000 educators have signed up to promote the radical scholarship of Howard Zinn in class. At the web page for the Zinn Education Project, the first two teacher testimonials are from Illinois.
Rep. Ford’s crusade seems firmly rooted in 2020. Like every other politician, he badly wants to be a ‘reformer’, and a warrior against injustice. But Ford has the same problem as leading Illinois citizen Jussie Smollett: his demand for racism to crusade against far outstrips the available supply.