Doubtless, you have heard the news about the high schoolers in Georgia who dressed as KKK members to film a segment of their own movie about racism. Their teacher was briefly suspended. This is my response, which I sent to the school board.
Dear Mr. Self,
I am writing as a professional historian (I am a former tenured member of the Georgia Southern University history department, and was a faculty member of the Africana Studies program)and concerned Georgia resident.
I have read the news accounts about Catherine Ariemma's class, and would like to offer some brief observations.
I do not know Ms. Ariemma personally, but she is to be commended: First, for offering an innovative course in history and film, which has the power to engage students' imagination, and second, for creating an environment in which the students feel comfortable tackling some of the knottier issues in American history. Too many teachers take the easy route, and teach history as one long litany of names and dates. The end result (as I can attest, having taught more freshmen than I care to recall) is that students are bored, turned off, and unable to think for themselves.
When a teacher like Ms. Ariemma goes the extra mile, she also takes risks. In this case, may I suggest, she attracted the attention of individual kids for whom getting offended offered a way to attract attention to themselves, and to create a situation in which they could hold power over a teacher. The long history of racism in Georgia makes teachers especially nervous about tackling race in the classroom, but it is impossible to teach American history in any meaningful way without addressing race head on.
In my own college classes, I taught about lynching by using graphic photographs. My students understood my goodwill, and I never had any complaints--far from it. Students of all colors applauded my forthright approach. If a person passing in the hallway had taken offense, I am certain that the administration would have backed me up.
Is high school different? Yes, it probably is, and I don't mean that in a good way: History teachers, more than any other, need the protections of tenure to teach their subjects well. It would be nothing short of a tragedy if the overreaction we have witnessed were to translate into teachers like Ms. Catherine Ariemma deciding never to take risks in history teaching. Good teaching is all about taking risks.
Sincerely, Annette Laing,Ph.D.