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Citizenship: NYS Social Studies Conference Update

The New York State Council for the Social Studies annual conference which I attended was held March 22-24 in Saratoga Springs. Several of the sessions were related to the new common core curriculum in social studies. The primary presenter was Larry Paska of the New York State Education. Also speaking was Regent James Dawson. In addition to the formal presentations both answered questions, Paska in a scheduled second session and Regent Dawson in an impromptu setting for close to an hour after his talk. In both sessions, teachers raised the issue of citizenship not being a goal for the proposed new curriculum. They are to prepare students for college and work but not to be adult human beings in a democratic society.

The issue of citizenship and one’s identity as an American is part of a larger political discourse in the country. New York State is expertly positioned to play a leading role in the discussion and for the development of appropriate standards and curriculum in the proposed common core curriculum. Of course, it could also squander the opportunity of crisis.

Consider for example, 9/11. That event is not part of the standards in New York because they were developed in the 1990s prior to its occurrence. After the event, several proposals were made for a statue to honor the firefighters using the incident of the raising of the flag paralleling Iwo Jima. (By the way, at the time, politicians routinely said “firefighters” while the real people said “Thank god for the firemen who rescued me.”). Some proposals show the actual firemen involved who as it happens were white. One proposal had a male Hispanic, African, and European-American. This depiction goes right to the heart of identity politics in America today: the victims were of all backgrounds but the individual human beings at the flagpole were not.

A recent article in Newsweek reminded me that the issue was alive and well. Angelo Falcon, the president of the National Institute for Latino Policy in response to comments made by Republican presidential candidates said: “They forget that Judge Sotomayor is an icon for the Latino community. It’s like attacking Martin Luther King or George Washington for blacks and whites.” So Sotomayor and King can’t be heroes to whites and the Father of our country can’t be a hero to Latinos and blacks. Welcome to the world of identity politics where the hyphen and not citizenship defines you. This has serious consequences for our country.

For example, at the social studies conference, a teacher performed part of his two-teacher play on Andre and Arnold. The middle school and high school teacher performed that play as part of a teacherhostel last summer at the Foundry Museum in Cold Spring. The teacher at the conference told me that the play was very popular at a “minority” school, “minority” being a code word for “majority” black. The play was popular because the students identified with Arnold who “stuck it to the man,” the “man” in this case being the indispensable person for the creation of America. Please remember during the summer Olympics only to cheer for the athletes who are of the same race and ethnicity you are!

Here is precisely where New York State can and must take the national lead in the formulation of the new social studies core curriculum. New York exemplifies that true melting pot ideal where the country you choose to be a citizen of trumps your hyphenated identity. This concept has always been part of New York’s culture even before it became a state. William Johnson of the Mohawk Valley was the first to gain fame as one who was at home in a multitude of cultures. The Iroquois knew that all Europeans were not one people and that the Dutch were not the British were not the French were not the Germans. Indeed they defined the Palatines as being not the others. (“When the Germans Were Hispanic” will the subject of a talk I will be giving at the Chappaqua Library in the fall and in an article to appear in American Interest.) Similarly, the European peoples knew that the Mohawk were not the Oneida were not the Seneca.

That sense of awareness of the differences among peoples of the same race continued as we saw during the Mohawk Valley Teacherhostel last summer. We visited not only the William Johnson homes but also his son-in-law at Guy Park Manor, now the Elwood Museum which shortly after was damaged by Hurricane Irene. What struck me the most from the exhibits was the number of different immigrant groups recently arrived Europe via Ellis Island who now worked in the Amsterdam factories. It was like an upstate version of the Lower East Side. I venture to say that the descendants of these people celebrate Thanksgiving even though none are of Puritan heritage and July 4th even though none are DAR or SAR. These two quintessential American holidays, meaning they can’t be switched to Monday, are exemplified by immigrant New York: the Macy*s Thanksgiving Day parade and the Macy*s Fourth of July fireworks. Where else could Lady Liberty be except in New York and by Ellis Island?

Perhaps hip-hop artist and Tony-award-winning artist Lin-Manuel Miranda of Manhattan provides a more hopeful future than Angelo Falcon. Miranda asked: “Why hasn’t anyone done a hip-hop version of Alexander Hamilton’s life?” What sparked Miranda’s interest in Hamilton, a Caribbean immigrant to New York who established the economic foundation for this country and not Jefferson? A paper he wrote in high school about the duel with Burr. Later as an adult he read Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton while he was on vacation in Mexico. (What do you read when you travel?) Miranda then answered his own question by creating “The Hamilton Mixtape,” a hip-hop song cycle based on Hamilton’s life, excerpts of which were played at Lincoln Center. That’s America. That’s why education is so important. That is why the new social studies curriculum is so important for our future.

The United States today faces serious issues as to how united it really is, as to how much people think themselves as part of We the People, as to whether we are a country of e pluribus enum or whether we are a nation of hyphens. The issue has exploded as the range of people who have become American citizens truly has gone global. All Americans should be able to take pride in the achievements of Judge Sotomayor. All Americans should be able to take pride in the achievements of Martin Luther King. All Americans should be able to take pride in the achievements George Washington without whom we probably wouldn’t have become a single country in the first place. The common core curriculum which should include citizenship as a goal and which should tell the story of how the people of the world created the greatest country in the world will be a battlefront where we determine the direction of America in the 21st century. New York State has a vital role to play in ensuring that the story continues to be a great one.

Peter Feinman founder and president of the Institute of History, Archaeology, and Education, a non-profit organization which provides enrichment programs for schools, professional development program for teachers, public programs including leading Historyhostels and Teacherhostels to the historic sites in the state, promotes county history conferences and the more effective use of New York State Heritage Weekend and the Ramble.


5 thoughts on “Citizenship: NYS Social Studies Conference Update

  1. Good essay, but it doesn’t seem to take into account how there is still institutionalized forces working against large portions of the population. American is still seen as White in a lot of ways and is qualified beyond that to African American, Latino American and so on. So we need to get over the idea that white is default for Americans.

  2. Peter Feinman totally misread my remarks about the special significance of Justice Sonia Sotomayor to the Latino community. All Americans should be proud of her and she is definitely not the exclusive property of Latinos. But I was reacting to politicians trying to use Latinos as a wedge issue in the current Presidential campaign.

    At the same time, we shouldn’t be naive about the great inequalities in this society and their relationship to race and ethnicity. This is something we all need to combat, but to ignore it and blame instead this thing called “identity politics” is to tolerate those inequalities.

    Angelo Falcon
    National Institute for Latino Policy (NiLP)

  3. This is another brilliant and insightful article by Peter. The issues he cites, while not pretending to cover the waterfront of race and even class politics is errorless in its tone, assumptions and details. Anyone who doesn’t think E Pluribus is missing its Unum is asleep. Historians, of all people, are – or should be – aware of the perils of presentism. Our times will inevitably shape some aspects of our perceptions and values. The question is whether we leave room for other perspectives – even those from the past – and if they are allowed to impinge on presentism’s relentlessness. America is an idea. And we need to be sure students are steeped in the elements of that idea.

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