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Changing the way Black history is taught in America

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As the nation reflects on and celebrates Black history this month, there's a growing debate over exactly how to teach Black history in American schools. Mary Frances Berry, a Geraldine Segal professor of American Social Thought and History at the University of Pennsylvania, joined CBSN's Lana Zak to discuss what works with the current school curriculums on Black history, and where improvements can be made.

Video Transcript

LANA ZAK: As the nation reflects on and celebrates Black history this month, there's a growing debate over exactly how to teach Black history in American schools. There is no national curriculum for teaching Black history in schools. And that leaves each state to set its own standards. Currently, only a small number of states like New York and Illinois have laws requiring it to be taught in schools.

Mary Frances Berry is a Geraldine Segal professor of American social thought and history at the University of Pennsylvania, and she joins me for more. Professor, thank you for being here. Happy Black-- Black History Month. I want to know what are some things that American school districts actually get right when teaching Black history? And where do you see the most areas for improvement?

MARY FRANCES BERRY: Well, most of what they get right is to talk about at least some of the people like Martin Luther King and Sojourner Truth, that they mention some of the names in Black history if they teach history. By the way, most school systems don't even teach American history in the way it should be taught. Forget about Black history.

What they get-- what they miss largely is the big picture. For example, the history of how Blacks contributed their labor, not just in the South, but in the North in the period before the Civil War that created the great economy, that free enterprise economy that we have in this country and made it possible, they don't teach that.

They don't teach the roles that Black people played in scientific contributions, mathematical contributions. Everybody was surprised when that movie "Hidden Figures" came out, and they saw those women, Black women, who were involved in the space program. There were Blacks involved in the Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge. There were Blacks involved in a lot of things that are not taught.

Here's what I think should happen. I think that the federal government cannot and should not mandate curriculum in every town and city and state in the country. The Constitution doesn't permit it, by the way.

But we could have the National Endowment for the Humanities put together a commission as it's done in the past on other subjects and come up with a format for what should be taught about Black history. They've done it for history in general more than once. And I think it's high time that it does the same thing, and produce this kind of curriculum, and let the states look at it, and see if some of them who have not adopted it would adopt it.

LANA ZAK: Hmm. Well, since there is no set standard for teaching Black history in the United States-- and as you say, you don't believe that'd be constitutional-- you've looked at this issue. How much does it vary from one state versus another?

MARY FRANCES BERRY: Well, it does depend on where you are. I'm in New Orleans right now and have friends here, young friends, who say that in the school systems where they were educated, they never knew that slavery was one of the causes of the Civil War because nobody ever mentioned it, that they were shocked.

LANA ZAK: No.

MARY FRANCES BERRY: And if you notice-- and if you noticed on the January 6 protests that took place in Washington, some of the people who were interviewed who were protesting before the violence took place didn't even know that the national government had a particular federalism, what that was, and that the national government had a role in what the electoral college really was, what it was supposed to do. They had no idea. No one had ever taught them any of that. So I think we need to do a better job of teaching people American history, Black history, and teaching them about all the people who make up this country and the important roles that they play.

LANA ZAK: I think you're making such an important point that that so often, and I mean, even as this-- as this conversation is conceived, we're talking about teaching Black history. But in reality as you say, we do a terrible job of teaching American history. And Black history is part of American history. When-- when we're talking about-- about balancing these different aspects of history-- and schools are under a lot of pressure to teach students math and science and reading and writing-- do you think that-- that we are having an abdication of our duty as-- as part of creating a civil society by not really focusing on not just dates and numbers but the important ideas behind history?

MARY FRANCES BERRY: That is an excellent question. The emphasis on STEM programs is justified, science technology, and so on in schools. And these are the skills that students need to get along in the world today and tomorrow. But the polarization that we see in this country, the people being at odds with each other, the misinformation, the misunderstanding about what America stands for and what we ought to be doing, part of that results from not even knowing what the principles are that we have abided by and that people have lived for and died for in various wars and everything else in this country.

And so when you say that we could do without history, certainly we could do that but without Black history, then in fact, what you're doing is denying students the opportunity to learn from the background of this country and what the goals and values really are.

LANA ZAK: Without understanding our history, we are doomed to repeat it. One last question for you, Professor. There's obviously a big debate right now happening in this country about statues and monuments that honor white historical figures with racist biographies. Sometimes, they have accomplished great things. But we can't bypass the fact that there are some really troubling parts of that resume that we should be looking at. So given your perspective, I'm wondering do you think that these-- that monuments should be taken down? Or would you advocate for preserving them as part of history?

MARY FRANCES BERRY: My general view is that we should not tear down the monuments of people who have made great contributions such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, so on, that what we should do is examine their history, make sure it's told, that it's made public, that everybody understands the flaws. And if there's information that should be added, put a plaque or something or some information there. But I'm generally in favor of remembering history whether it's good or bad because we learn lessons from even the bad history of the bad actors.

And I'm-- and I'm not in favor of simply trying to obliterate it although I do think there should be more monuments to people who have been left out-- Blacks, Latinos, women. There should be Asian-Americans. There should be Indigenous people. There should be more monuments to their contributions and what they've done and so on rather than just focusing on the, say, the Confederate heroes or the great white men of the nation. But I'm not in favor of trying to wipe out bad history and forget that it ever happened. Because if we do, it'll be repeated.

LANA ZAK: Professor, we are out of time. But I want you to give us all a homework assignment. Give us one name of a-- of a Black American that we should all research and know something more about.

MARY FRANCES BERRY: Audre Lorde. A-U-D-R-E L-O-R-D-E.

LANA ZAK: All right. We will-- You have your homework, America. We will have to look that up. Professor Mary Frances Berry, what a pleasure speaking with you.

MARY FRANCES BERRY: All right. Thank you so much for having me.