Listening to the past

How history can guide the future of education


Faculty essay by Joy Williamson-Lott

These days a multitude of educational consultants, politicians and advocates stand ready to tell us how to improve school. Though we're rightly concerned about the educational policies, standards and practices that can create a better future, history is too often left in the past. Without knowing and wrestling with the past, all educational reforms or interventions are rootless. If we are to teach people to critically engage the public purposes of schooling, to make them aware that different communities have different social and historical relationships to schools, we must know our history.

For instance, knowledge of educational history can guard against a “good ole days” type of nostalgia and the cooptation of the past to justify contemporary aims. An obvious example is the 2017 declaration by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos that “HBCUs [Historically Black Colleges and Universities] are pioneers when it comes to school choice.” She later recanted and explained that the institutions “provided choices for black students that they didn’t have” at white institutions (how that is still “choice,” I am not sure). Beyond the fact that her statement was untethered to history or reality, it was an attempt to use history as a bolster in favor of both charter schools and vouchers, two initiatives that have come to represent parental choice in education.

Vouchers, public money for private education, have a long and troubled history. They were popularized during the post Brown v. Board of Education era. When the Supreme Court decided that separate was inherently unequal in 1954, white school officials across the South closed their public school systems rather than desegregate. Most people know of the famed 1957-1958 school year when nine black students desegregated Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. What is lesser known is that Little Rock closed its public schools the following academic year rather than remain desegregated. All public schools in Prince Edward County, Va., remained closed for four years. White officials in these and other locations created private schools for white students to attend, and white parents paid for their children’s education through local tuition grants: public money for private, segregated, white academies. Black parents were barred from using the funds and had to find other ways to educate their children—all while their tax dollars supported the education of white children. 

When DeVos paired black education and choice, whether at the K-12 or collegiate level, she not only mangled history but tapped into racist practices and policies that undermined educational opportunity and democracy itself. A close examination of the past—through desegregation efforts and push-back against them with school closures and racist disbursement of public funds for private schools—would allow contemporary school people and citizens to think more deeply about who school choice really benefits, the unintended consequences of legal rulings, and how to avoid the inevitable push-back that comes with change and progress.

Knowledge of educational history also provides fodder for school people (and average citizens) to understand their local contexts and a way to make sense of current educational realities.  For instance, most discussions regarding segregated schooling focus on the South, where the Brown decision was meted out against states that prohibited black and white children from attending school together. However, cities and states outside the region achieved the same ends in other ways, including Seattle. Housing covenants in various Seattle neighborhoods policed who could buy property, no matter who an owner may have wanted to sell to. Covenants in Ballard and Alki barred anyone from the “Ethiopian, Malay [Filipino], or any Asiatic race,” while Broadmoor and Magnolia included a ban on “Hebrews.” Several neighborhoods, including Beacon Hill, Green Lake and Lake City, explicitly barred “any person not of the white race” while Capitol Hill, Madrona and Montlake targeted “negroes or any person or persons of negro blood” for exclusion. This residential segregation necessarily led to school segregation as children attended schools in their neighborhoods. Seattle continues to be racially/ethnically segregated—residentially and educationally—in the 21st century.  (see figure below)

Seattle Census map.jpgWhat history teaches us here is that the difference between de jure (in law) segregation and de facto (in practice) segregation is meaningless for how students experience schools. Neither Seattle nor the State of Washington may have had laws against black and white (or Asian or Latino/a) students from attending school together, but housing covenants ensured they wouldn’t. And, like the South, the schools with the highest concentrations of students of color and poor students were and are underperforming (I will leave to a different time the task of debunking cultural deficit theories to explain that underperformance). The southern United States is a convenient foil for those outside the region who like to point to the South as the place where racism lives. But local histories, including educational histories, teach us otherwise.

History, when taught correctly, isn’t simply about names, facts and dates. It’s about debate and interpretation; it’s about seeing reality in all its complexity and not shying away from the ugly parts."

History, when taught correctly, isn’t simply about names, facts and dates. It’s about debate and interpretation; it’s about seeing reality in all its complexity and not shying away from the ugly parts ; it’s about recognizing that push-back against reform is predictable. It’s also a vehicle for school district leaders, principals, policy makers and teachers to understand the role of schools in a democracy as multifaceted and varied: not all students experience school the same way, and not all reforms are intended to help all students (and even those intended to help all students rarely do so). A knowledge of history may not soothe the desire to find the silver bullet to solve society’s problems, but it guarantees that the decisions school people will make, decisions that impact a huge number of youth, are properly rooted to increase their chances of success. 

Professor Joy Williamson-Lott is a historian of American education whose research explores the reciprocal relationship between social movements and institutions of higher education. Her most recent book is “Jim Crow Campus: Higher Education and the Southern Social Order in the Mid-Twentieth Century.”