Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Teaching about Race in High School

This is a guest post by Lyndsay

"I am almost done studying to be a teacher in Toronto, Ontario. After growing up in a small city with little ethnic diversity, getting a Bachelor of Arts and Science in biology and psychology at a somewhat more diverse university, I am enjoying living somewhere with sushi at practically every corner. I may teach science in England next year but my hope is to come back and teach courses like Challenge and Change in Society, Women's and Gender Studies and Introduction to Anthropology, Sociology and Psychology in High School."

I am training to be a teacher and just finished a month-long practicum. I taught a grade 11 class a psychology unit in an Introduction to Anthropology, Sociology and Psychology course. At school we are constantly encouraged to teach a curriculum that is more inclusive and works toward social justice. I watched as the teacher who was supervising me taught her class about the lack of biological evidence for our ideas of race and the history of our ideas about race. While she was teaching, I thought about how important this information is for students to know and the opportunities other subject teachers have to teach it.

If you asked most adults, they would likely guess people have been racist since they discovered people who look different from them. While humans have a long history of treating people like they’re inferior, at one point it was often based on people being “uncivilized” or unable to defend themselves. I haven’t read the new book The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter but it looks like a detailed history of the development of the concept or social construct of race.

“Race as a social construct” can be taught in an evolution unit. This would begin with teaching that before sunscreen or products supplemented with Vitamin D, people developed the skin colour that was most adaptive to the region they were living in so they would not get skin cancer or broken bones before they could pass on their genes. In evolution, traits do not have a value. They are simply adaptive to the environment the person or animal evolved in. Then a teacher could delve into race as a social construct.

“Race as a social construct” can also be taught in a genetics unit. There is not significant genetic evidence to divide people in three or five or ten groups. Geneticists have found more differences within races or ethnicities than between one race or ethnicity and another. Talking about the lack of genetic evidence for dividing people can lead into teaching about how our ideas about race came to be. In both units, students can also be taught there is the most genetic diversity in Africa, which is evidence for people beginning in Africa, and can dispel ideas students have about people from Africa or Asia being very similar to other Africans or Asians.

Talking about how our ideas about race came to be can be done in any science class when teaching about the flaws of science research. Since students are mainly taught core (undisputed) science, they rarely get a chance to try to question science research. Some of the ideas we have about race came from scientists. For example, Samuel George Morton (1799-1851) collected skulls from around the world and measured the interior of them to judge intellectual capacity by their size. He found the skulls of Europeans were largest. Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) in The Mismeasure of Man wrote about the errors in Samuel Morton’s work. Everyone should know brain size doesn’t even predict intelligence. Carl Linnaeus, known as the father of modern taxonomy, also classified people into five races and gave each different characteristics. Of course he placed Europeans placed at the top.

The development of ideas about race can be looked at in any course that looks at history from the last 400 years, sociology, or anthropology. I’m sure there are times when this could be taught in an English course too. Of course it’s important to make clear that this doesn’t mean racism doesn’t affect people today. I definitely think it’s important to teach about the impacts of racism as well but that wasn’t the focus of this post. All this does mean the ideas we have about race were created over time by scientists and law makers in particular, over the last 400 years. They justified treating a group of people as less than human by convincing people that this group was less than human. The hope is that by having students understand the history of race they can examine ideas about race they didn’t even realize they had and realize these ideas have not been around forever. Ideas from people from over 200 years ago can be changed. It seems harder to blindly accept ideas when you know they came from fallible people in the past, some of whom were motivated by the desire to make money for their country no matter what the cost to people’s lives.