[As ever, a holiday week series of wishes for the AmericanStudies Elves—this time focused on some of the communities and folks I love most. Leading up to this special post on a holiday wish for us all!]
On a simple shift that could change a great deal.
Because my upcoming year in review series will focus on more upbeat topics, I wanted to take this holiday post to engage briefly (as I also did at a bit greater length in one of my recent Saturday Evening Post columns) with the current, divisive debates over education in America. I don’t imagine I have to spell out for even the most casual or occasional reader of this blog where I come down on the question of whether we should be teaching histories and issues of race, racism, white supremacy, antiracism, and so on. Indeed, in many ways, I find the voices raised in opposition to such teaching to be a profoundly frustrating combination of breathtakingly ignorant of what actually happens in classrooms (of every type and at every level) and strikingly direct in their embrace of the most mythologized, whitewashed visions of the nation and its histories and communities (guess we should have read the writing on the wall when the 1776 Commission Report was released, on MLK Day no less, and directly attacked “universities” as “hotbeds of anti-Americanism…that generate in students and in the broader culture at the very least disdain and at worst outright hatred for this country”).
I likewise shouldn’t have to state how wrongheaded, and just plain wrong, I find that image of our universities and those who teach and work in them. But I will add this: I find it profoundly frustrating that so much of the time it feels as if inspiration is one of the very last concepts or effects associated with academic or scholarly history (or academic/scholarly work of any kind). While I don’t think many of us are teaching disdain, much less hate (not toward the United States and not toward anything or anyone else either), I do think that at times our collective scholarly emphases (in our teaching, in our writing, in our public scholarly voices and perspectives, and so on) can veer a bit more fully toward the hardest and most painful (and even, yes, the most pessimistic) sides of our histories, our stories, our issues. All of which are certainly crucial to remember, to teach and learn, to engage and understand—but all of which, I believe and have argued across multiple projects now, also have to be balanced by ideas and goals like critical optimism and critical patriotism.
There are lots of vital voices doing that work already, of course, and so my holiday wish, AmericanStudies Elves, is that we learn from those voices and work who are modeling thoughtful, nuanced, critical optimism and patriotism. Voices and works about American history like Christina Proenza-Coles’ American Founders: How People of African Descent Established Freedom in the New World (2019). Voices and works about education like Kevin Gannon’s Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto (2020). Voices and works that offer models for where we go from here like Eddie Glaude Jr.’s Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own (2020). As we keep doing the hard work, fellow Elves, let’s make sure we’re doing hopeful work too.
Year in review series starts Monday,
PS. What wishes would you beam out to the Elves?