Monday, January 16, 2012

Going Beyond Textbooks to Paint a Fuller Picture of Dr. Martin Luther King for Students

From a national holiday in his honor to a firm position in the state standards guiding the prescribed curriculum of nearly all schools, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of the most widely celebrated civil rights leaders and dissenting activists in America. Examining the treatment of this exemplar as portrayed in widely adopted social studies textbooks reveals important and worrisome insight into the prescribed treatment of leaders who engage in social and political dissent, if they are mentioned at all. While the content of what is taught about an historical figure certainly encompasses more than just the adopted textbooks of the school, textbooks offer a starting point for examining the account of a figure that has been, at minimum, tacitly endorsed by the school board through their adoption of the text, even if teachers may chose to supplement or ignore its contents.

My graduate research assistant and I examined the treatment of King in nine major textbooks selected based on large state adoptions as chronicled by the American Textbook Council, representing 80% of the textbook market in social studies. In most textbooks, King is celebrated as a hero who preached love and unity as he tried to bring together Americans divided by racism. A typical portrayal of King is demonstrated in the eighth grade social studies textbook, Creating America: “Dr. King became the leader of the Montgomery bus boycott. Fresh out of school, he had been in Montgomery about a year. But his courage and eloquence made him a perfect person to lead the movement. King learned about nonviolence by studying religious writers and thinkers. He came to believe that only love could convert people to the side of justice. He described the power of non-violent resisters: ‘We will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. And in winning our freedom…we will win you in the process’” (p. 585). While there certainly are many aspects of this image that are true, these textbooks tend to ignore the complexities of King’s life as a political dissenter and social activist. The radical aspects of his work, especially those that became clearer later in his life as he fought poverty and the Vietnam War, are rarely mentioned, if at all.

One of the few mentions is the rather innocuous statement in The American Nation: “He became increasingly upset that funding for social programs was being diverted to the war in Vietnam” (p. 938). With the exception of the more nuanced portrait offered by Joy Hakim in A History of Us, the overall textbook impression offered of King is as a gentle uniter—one who is accepted and appreciated by all—and one who worked hard to calmly win over white people. He is shown in contrast to some of his Civil Rights colleagues who chose to focus on empowering Black peers instead and especially in contrast to Malcolm X whose radical tactics many textbooks imply should not be emulated. Failing to demonstrate for students the ways in which King passionately and even, at times, angrily engaged dissent to reveal problems, break unjust laws, rally the public, and demand alternative ways of living, prevents students from seeing the success and necessity of dissent and activism in democracy. Painting such a limited and seemingly rosy image of King suggests that the work of other dissenters who are less well-known or respected may be even more problematic or inaccurate, possibly depriving students of a rich account of the complexities and sustained efforts of those who practice dissent well. In order to paint a fuller and more accurate picture of King and his contributions, schools need to go beyond the image offered in popular textbooks.

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