There has been so much recent talk of progress in the areas of curriculum innovation and textbook revision that few people outside the field of teaching understand how bad most of our elementary school materials still are. In isolated suburban school districts children play ingenious Monopoly games revised to impart an immediate and first-person understanding of economic problems in the colonial period. In private schools, kindergarten children begin to learn about numbers with brightly colored sticks known as cuisenaire rods, and second-grade children are introduced to mathematics through the ingenuity of a package of odd-shaped figures known as Attribute Games. But in the majority of schools in Roxbury and Harlem and dozens of other slum districts stretching west across the country, teaching techniques, textbooks, and other teaching aids are hopelessly antique, largely obsolete, and often insulting or psychologically oppressive for many thousands of Negro and other minority schoolchildren.
I once made a check of all books in my fourth-grade classroom. Of the slightly more than six hundred books, almost one quarter had been published prior to the bombing of Hiroshima; 60 percent were either ten years old or older. Of thirty-two different book series standing in rows within the cupboard, only six were published as recently as five years ago, and seven series were twenty to thirty-five years old. These figures put into perspective some of the lofty considerations and expensive research projects sponsored by even the best of the curriculum development organizations, for they suggest that educational progress and innovation are reaching chiefly the children of rich people rather than the children of the urban poor.
Obsolescence, however, was not the only problem in our textbooks. Direct and indirect forms of discrimination were another. The geography book given to my pupils, first published eighteen years ago and only modestly updated since, traced a cross-country journey in which there was not one mention, hint, or image of a dark-skinned face. The chapter on the South described an idyllic landscape in the heart of Dixie: pastoral home of hardworking white citizens, contented white children, and untroubled white adults.
While the history book mentioned Negroes—in its discussion of slavery and the Civil War—the tone of these sections was ambiguous. "Men treasure freedom above all else," the narrative conceded at one point, but it also pointed out that slavery was not an altogether dreadful institution: "Most Southern people treated their slaves kindly," it related, and then quoted a stereotyped plantation owner as saying: "Our slaves have good homes and plenty to eat. When they are sick, we take care of them...."
While the author favored emancipation, he found it necessary to grant to arguments on the other side a patriotic legitimacy: "No one can truly say, 'The North was right' or 'The Southern cause was better.' Remember, each side fought for the ideals it believed in. For in Our America all of us have the right to our beliefs."
When my class had progressed to the cotton chapter in our geography book, I decided to alter the scheduled reading. Since I was required to make use of the textbook, and since its use, I believed, was certain to be damaging, I decided to supply the class with extra material in the form of a mimeographed sheet. I did not propose to tell the children any tales about lynchings, beatings, or the Ku Klux Klan. I merely wanted to add to the study of cotton-growing some information about the connection between the discovery of Eli Whitney's cotton gin and the greater growth of slavery.
I had to submit this material to my immediate superior in the school, a lady whom I will call the Reading Teacher. The Reading Teacher was a well-intentioned woman who had spent several years in ghetto classrooms, but who, like many other teachers, had some curiously ambivalent attitudes toward the children she was teaching. I recall the moment after I had handed her that sheet of paper. Looking over the page, she agreed with me immediately that it was accurate. Nobody, she said, was going to quibble with the idea that cotton, the cotton gin, and slavery were all intertwined. But it was the question of the "advisability of any mention of slavery to the children at this time," which, she said, she was presently turning over in her mind. "Would it," she asked me frankly, "truly serve the advantage of the children at this stage to confuse and complicate the study of simple geography with socioeconomic factors?" Why expose the children, she was asking essentially, to unpleasant facts about their heritage?
Then, with an expression of the most honest and intense affection for the children in the class, she added: "I don't want these children to have to think back on this year later on and to remember that we were the ones who told them they were Negro." This remark seemed to take one step further the attitude of the textbook writers. Behind the statement lay the unspoken assumption that to be Negro was a shameful condition. The longer this knowledge could be kept from the innocent young, the better off they would be.
After the journey across America, the class was to study the life of the desert Arab. Before we began, the Reading Teacher urged upon me a book which she said she had used with her own classes for a great many years. It was not the same book the children had. She told me she preferred it, but that it was too old to be in regular use. I took the book home that night and opened it up to a section on the Arabs:
"The Bedouin father is tall and straight. He wears a robe that falls to his ankles and his bare feet are shod in sandals of camel's leather....Behind the Bedouin father walk his wife and his children....
These people are fine looking. Their black eyes are bright and intelligent. Their features are much like our own, and, although their skin is brown, they belong to the white race, as we do. It is scorching desert sun that has tanned the skin of the Arabs to such a dark brown color."