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The history of white supremacy and slavery in America is being taught in troubling ways today – from textbooks in Texas leveraging subtle euphemisms that label slaves as run-of-the-mill “workers,” to New York classroom activities asking young Black students to reenact slave auctions in front of their white peers. Unhelpful and traumatizing practices like these are not only pernicious, but commonplace: Only 8 percent of high school seniors can identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War, and members of this Editorial Board can point to their own inappropriate K-12 experience in which teachers – adults – thought it appropriate to have students “play” slavery.
In an aim to shed light on these dark and warped educational practices, Harvard Medical School recently hosted a talk with researcher Donald Yacovone to discuss his research and upcoming book, both of which are centered on the white supremacy embedded within the education of young American students.
The schoolroom lessons that we are taught from our wee kindergarten days onward have lasting consequences for how we think about race in our society today, and fundamentally shape, affirm, and regulate our societal norms and behaviors. To that end, when American history – as taught in school curriculums today – plainly excludes vital elements of African American history, or sanitizes the dark underbelly of the American empire, a white supremacist value judgment is being made and stamped into our perceptions of what stories should be embedded within the American consciousness; whose histories deserve attention, and who counts as a true American.
Yacovene’s research is deeply valuable, and we appreciate that space was made for this conversation within Harvard's virtual halls. Yet facilitating this dialogue is no slam dunk. Harvard itself is not at all above the issue of white supremacy and Eurocentricity in education.
After nearly half a century, Harvard still has no ethnic studies department. We have previously expressed our frustration surrounding the College’s lack of an ethnic studies concentration, despite the 12 formal proposals for one presented to Harvard, and the Eurocentric bent of flagship Harvard curricula such as the Humanities 10 course series. We continue to remain disenchanted by this noxious, conscious lapse.
Harvard also continues to perpetuate the issues that Yacovone’s work highlights through its haphazard departmental choices and policies. Indeed, in departments that actually do begin to center decolonial academic practices aimed at undoing white supremacist norms, such as History and Literature, instructors are often hired on short-term limits that restrict their capacity to contribute to the long-term intellectual communities of their departments. Furthermore, Harvard simply doesn’t hire many faculty members with academic interests in ethnic studies, nor does the College retain such scholars. In fact, there have been droughts lasting up to six years in which Harvard’s social science departments have gone without Latin American and Middle Eastern history professors – yet, of course, Harvard has seen no shortage of American and Western European history professors.
The ramifications of this dynamic are cutting and widespread. Most fundamentally, the lack of robust academic programs through which to study race, ethnicity, and power at the University have distortedly defined what Harvard, as an institution, regards as valuable and worthy of exploration. And inevitably, this missing academic space and dearth of resources also threatens to cultivate a culture of insensitivity and disregard for issues of race and ethnicity within academic study at Harvard. Indeed, this came to roost just earlier this year, when Harvard actually entertained the notion of offering Engineering Sciences 298R: “Data Fusion in Complex Systems: A Case Study” – a now-redacted course that, if launched, would have had undergraduates engage in policing a majority-minority city without any incorporation of race within its pedagogical framework. Whether intentional or not, instances like these tacitly signal that robust considerations of race can be trivialized and swept away in academia where desperately needed. Especially when this development is considered in tandem with Harvard's strikingly low rates of tenure for professors of color, a damning narrative on the treatment of the perspectives of people of color within Harvard’s scholarship begins to take shape.
Harvard has to recognize when it's throwing stones from a glass house. If the University is truly interested in unpacking how white supremacy infects academia, there remains endless work and personal reckoning to be done. Indeed, at the very least, the University should actively seek to ensure its existing educational materials don’t deepen the hole in the ways Yacovone’s work points out. And, if they haven’t done so already, Harvard faculty should work independently to update their assigned textbooks, readings, and lecture notes to reject racist value judgments that may tip the scale on what is and isn’t included.
Inevitably, Yacovone has helped to spark a necessary conversation on the role of white supremacy in education, but Harvard’s placement within this broader dialogue will remain largely performative in the absence of any real institutional introspection and change. The University has a significant role to play in education; not only does Harvard educate its own, but it also produces many academics who go on to create the works from which later generations learn. Against this backdrop, Harvard must ensure that its students do not walk forward with institutional racism built into their backbones.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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