the value of studying history

As usual, the most interesting part of my day is working with the class

of students at Northwestern High School. They interviewed a White teacher

who had taught in the County schools from 1968 to the present, as his

students changed from all White, to Whites plus one African American kid,

to almost exclusively children of color. The teacher claimed that this

change had occurred slowly enough that he hardly noticed it and that it

made no difference, since "teenagers are teenagers." He asked

the kids what they had learned in our class so far. Several said that

they had gained an appreciation of Prince George’s County. This is surprising,

since the history we have studied is mostly about racism and exclusion.

But one young woman said, "I thought it was the boringest county

ever." The fact that dramatic changes had occurred here made our

community seem interesting. The fact that the changes involved school

policies made the kids feel part of an important (and contested) institution.

And the fact that teenagers were sometimes protagonists in the civil rights

stuggle gave them a sense of their own power and responsibility. At least,

this is my interpretation of what the students said.

We have now conducted half a dozen interviews as a whole class or as

individuals. Meanwhile, I have been thinking a bit about historical method.

We have encountered several contrasting perspectives on the same events—especially

the arrival at Northwestern of one African American student in 1955, which

we’ve heard described by himself, his sister, and a teacher. It’s not

hard to see that there’s one truth about the past, albeit a complex one.

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