Letter to the Editor: Social Studies and the FAIR Act
Don Romesburg and Tamara Chaplin, November 2012
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To the Editor:
In a recent letter to the editor (Perspectives on History, September 2012), Kevin Krahenbuhl argues that the passage of California Senate Bill 48, the FAIR Act, strikes a "devastating blow" to K–12 social studies. The governing board of the Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History (an affiliated society of the American Historical Association) asserts that the FAIR Act actually furthers the traditional goals of social studies, by ensuring that the roles and contributions of LGBT people and people with disabilities are accurately portrayed in K–12 history teaching and instructional materials. This act adds these groups to people of color and others already ensured equitable representation in the state's inclusionary education requirement.
As historians, we support California's approach, which gives local school districts control over the specific content of their social science curricula. Local teachers and communities are collaborating with historians and state officials to implement the law appropriately and reasonably. No one textbook is being imposed statewide. This policy might be contrasted against the Texas Board of Education's misguided curricular revisions in 2010, which mandated a statewide, top-down, politically driven history curriculum out of step with most professional, evidence-based understandings of the American past.
We applaud the FAIR Act because the exclusion of LGBT people and people with disabilities matters. Suicides of LGBT youth and other targets of anti-gay bullying indicate how tragic the results of curricular LGBT invisibility can be. History education can help change this. Recent studies—such as the Preventing School Harassment Survey in California—have shown that bullying drops by over half in schools where students are taught about LGBT people. It seems reasonable to posit that those with disabilities will similarly benefit from an inclusive curriculum.
Krahenbuhl suggests that "it is difficult to argue that [LGBT people's] sexuality has any significant impact on the outcome of history, the structure/workings of government, or the ways in which the economy functions." A wealth of respected scholarship contradicts his claims. Minorities have a "significant impact on the outcome of history" not only because of their contributions, but also because their persecution constitutes an important part of the historical narrative. To name just one example, we cannot fully understand the post-WWII Red Scare without reference to government persecution of homosexuals, and gay people's response to it. An inclusive narrative helps students grapple with why a particular population was targeted at that time, analyze how that persecution might relate to other civil rights movements, and question how historical prejudice might influence current debates.
Learning about how LGBT people and people with disabilities have fought for social recognition, political and economic equity and civic access, as well as analyzing how these populations have been discriminated against provides students with tools to become more well-informed, robust citizens. More importantly, such curricular inclusions offer social studies teachers an opportunity to teach their students a vital truth: that categories like sexuality, ability, race, gender, and class are historically constructed; they map specific relations of power onto biological, cultural and economic differences.
We encourage fellow historians to stand in support of the FAIR Act. First, help us develop programming at the AHA's annual meetings related to the incorporation of the histories of LGBT people and people with disabilities into K–12 teaching and educational materials. Second, encourage the inclusion of the histories of LGBT people and people with disabilities in secondary school curricula. Third, speak out when misinformation arises. For surely, as Krahenbuhl observes, "If educators do not stand up for truth then we don't deserve to call ourselves educators." In this, if little else, we agree.
Please join us in this ongoing dialogue.
Sonoma State University
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Writing on behalf of the governing board of the Committee on LGBT History:
Don Romesburg (co-chair)
Jennifer Brier (co-chair)
and Alex Warner
Editor's Note: A longer version of this letter can be found in the fall 2012 newsletter of the Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History.