This book compares two challenges made to American public school curricula in the 1980s and 1990s. It identifies striking similarities between proponents of Afrocentrism and creationism, accounts for their differential outcomes, and draws important conclusions for the study of culture, organizations, and social movements.
Amy Binder gives a brief history of both movements and then describes how their challenges played out in seven school districts. Despite their very different constituencies--inner-city African American cultural essentialists and predominately white suburban Christian conservatives--Afrocentrists and creationists had much in common. Both made similar arguments about oppression and their children's well-being, both faced skepticism from educators about their factual claims, and both mounted their challenges through bureaucratic channels. In each case, challenged school systems were ultimately able to minimize or reject challengers' demands, but the process varied by case and type of challenge. Binder finds that Afrocentrists were more successful in advancing their cause than were creationists because they appeared to offer a solution to the real problem of urban school failure, met with more administrative sympathy toward their complaints of historic exclusion, sought to alter lower-prestige curricula (history, not science), and faced opponents who lacked a legal remedy comparable to the rule of church-state separation invoked by creationism's opponents.
Binder's analysis yields several lessons for social movements research, suggesting that researchers need to pay greater attention to how movements seek to influence bureaucratic decision making, often from within. It also demonstrates the benefits of examining discursive, structural, and institutional factors in concert.
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Princeton University Press
April 18, 2004
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Excerpt from Contentious Curricula by Amy J. Binder
INTRODUCTION TO AFROCENTRISM AND CREATIONISM, CHALLENGERS TO EDUCATIONAL "INJUSTICE"
IN 1988, the District of Columbia public school system found itself perched on the edge of a controversy that would bedevil it for the next ten years. Although the issue would ebb and flow as the decade wore on, one superintendent lost his job over the controversy, and a great deal of ink was spilled, and vitriol expressed, in the local media over the strengths and weaknesses of the proposed plan. All of this discussion was activated by a proposal to infuse "African-centered" materials and methods of instruction into the local public school curriculum. The people who advanced the proposal argued that the district's curriculum was biased toward European knowledge and Western styles of teaching, and that this bias was harmful to the self-esteem and performance of African American school children. Proponents of Afrocentrism also complained that their views were not being represented within the district's official decision-making bodies, and that they were being denied a rightful voice in school policy. Community activists, Afrocentric scholars from across the nation, and parents of poorly educated children pushed the district to "go Afro-centric," while the majority of the city's resident media commentators, university faculty, and politicians pressured district leaders to reject the movement. Adding to the complexity, one faction of Afrocentrism's most vocal opponents lent their support to implementing a more "inclusive" multicultural curriculum in the district, while other opponents advised the district to reject all contemporary efforts to "balance" curricular content.
Charged with "race betrayal" by Afrocentrists if they did not incorporate Afrocentric materials into the curriculum, and with "spinelessness" by the opposing side if they did, district administrators faced decisions fraught with peril no matter which way they turned. Ultimately, the administration decided to implement what I call "circumscribed Afrocentric reform" in the district, which was an effort to conciliate both sides that ended up satisfying no one. To this end, the district instituted a school-within-a-school, "African-centered" program that served a miniscule 120 children out of some 80,000 in the district. The administration's solution won it few friends among either allies or opponents of Afrocentric reform, for it neither fully endorsed nor fully denounced the aims of the controversial Afrocentric movement. For this compromise solution, administrators received withering criticism in the district and the nation, with the Washington Post leading the charge. Opponents condemned the superintendent and his staff for caving in to the demands of a radical fringe movement, and proponents of Afrocentrism castigated the superintendent for limiting the program to such a small scale, although they simultaneously praised him for even that level of support.
Another controversy over curriculum content that surfaced during this same general time took place in the state of California. Lasting from 1985 to 1989, this curriculum debate featured much of the same antagonistic rhetoric as the conflict over Afrocentrism in Washington, D.C. In a debate that concerned science-teaching statewide, challengers in the state of California argued that science curricula were biased and discriminatory, and that they, the challengers, had been excluded from the process of determining the content of public school instruction. The system, it seemed to them, had come under the control of a monopoly interest, and it was time to wrest power from this oppressive group. New curricula and materials had to replace the old dogmatic mode of instruction.
Although this sounds similar to the Afrocentric demands described above, the curricular content at the heart of the California debate was unlike the one Washington activists were fighting for. In California, Christian conservatives initiated the debate, charging that secular humanism had militated against truth in science classrooms, and that something immediate, and something fundamental, must be done to return schools to their more honest, Christian roots. They argued that alongside the teaching of evolution of human origins in science classes, there should rightfully be taught creation science, a "scientifically based" explanation of the biblical account of creation, in which a divine being created the earth, human beings, and all other species.
Over the past several years, I have examined three cases of Afrocentric challenge made to public school curricula, like the Washington case, and have compared them to four cases of creationist challenge, like the California case. All seven of the challenges that I studied occurred between 1980 and 2000. Like many other Afrocentric battles, the challenge in Washington arose in one of the nation's largest and poorest, predominantly African American school systems. Condemning public schools for shortchanging generations of their children, Washington D.C. supporters of Afrocentrism demanded that public schools rewrite their social studies and history curricula to emphasize the contributions made to U.S. and world history by Africans and African Americans. One of its specific solutions was to reorient African American children toward their African past, and also to honor the accomplishments of ancient black Egyptian culture--which is said to have lent so much of its teachings to Greek and Roman civilization. It was a movement that embraced black nationalism, essentialism, and traditionalism--a form of conservatism that has long been one strain of African-American social and political thought.
Likewise, in many respects, the California creationist case was characteristic of other creationist battles being waged in the country during this time period, both in the demography of its supporters and in the claims they made. First, it was a challenge from the politically and socially conservative Right. Its proponents claimed that secular humanism and atheism--both of which, they argued, were based on a flawed evolutionary theory claimed as fact--had become established as a state religion in the public schools. One of the greatest abominations to morality, said creationists, was teaching evolution in science classrooms without also teaching "alternative theories" of life's origins. For creationists, evolution is not only biblically proscribed, but scientifically unproven, as well. Therefore, members of this group sought to loosen evolution's "dogmatic" grip on the imaginations of their children by having "honest" scientific evidence presented in the classroom, which casts doubt on Darwinian theory.
Seemingly incomparable on a number of dimensions--in terms of their sociopolitical ideologies, race, region, religion, and specific pedagogical objectives--these two groups of challengers, I will argue, were actually similar, and thus ideal for comparison, in a number of crucial ways.
First, at the most fundamental level, both Afrocentrism and creationism offered solutions to perceived social and educational problems--they were reform efforts to fix schools.1 Each of these challenging efforts criticized the public education system for imposing its views on pupils and for placing enormous constraints on parents' ability to transmit their own belief systems to their children. Christian conservatives who supported creation science, for example, complained bitterly about secular humanists' monopoly of the education system, which was so powerful, they argued, that children's most profound beliefs were being trampled by administrators and teachers who held the reins of educational control. Similarly, Afrocentrists charged that an omnipresent Eurocentric curriculum has been forced upon their children, forming an oppressive environment that flagrantly has misrepresented Africans and African Americans and deemphasized historical racism.
Second, both challenges used the emotive force of their children's welfare to stake their claims for curricular change. As authors such as Nicola Beisel, and I, elsewhere, have demonstrated, there may be no more compelling social project than trying to protect children from various sorts of insidious harms.2 Invoking their children as the prime beneficiaries of their action, Afrocentrists and creationists were remarkably alike.
A third similarity between the two was that both groups of challengers publicly insisted that their corrective to the education establishment's monopoly of the curriculum was to provide pluralism in the classroom, not censorship. Since the 1960s, creationists have argued that they were fighting not to limit teaching--by ejecting evolution from the classroom--but rather, to have more content added to the curriculum, by teaching evolution and creation science alongside one another or, in a later version of their argument, by "exposing the weaknesses" of Darwinian theory. Such a solution, said the activists, is inclusive of everyone's beliefs, Christian and humanist. In a similar tone, Afrocentrists claimed that they did not seek to replace a Eurocentric curriculum with an Afrocentric one, for that would only repeat the miseducation of students and continue an arrogant disregard for other cultures.3 Rather, national figures in the movement proposed to correct the misrepresentation of Africa in world history by adding previously slighted materials about the continent and its people and by ridding the school system of only the materials that are biased and white-centered.4 Both groups of challengers represented their demands as inclusionary, not exclusionary.
Capping off this set of similarities was the fact that these challengers also faced considerable skepticism among a majority of educators--particularly administrators--in the school systems they battled.5 Given the unorthodox tenets of each of these curricular movements, many administrators, dealing with their respective challenges, regarded these efforts to be politically risky, at best, and academically outrageous, at worst. While they invoked different cultural and institutional criteria to cast doubt on the two curriculum agendas, large numbers of education professionals were generally dismayed at being pressed to reform curricula along "non-scholarly" avenues: so that ancient black Egyptians could be presented as teachers to the Greeks, or so that the Bible could be used as the departure point for a scientific theory of origins. Whether these professionals were primarily motivated by a desire to protect their own positions by keeping change at bay, or to ensure that students be taught what they considered to be academically rigorous content, the majority of policymakers and administrators in systems challenged by Afrocentrism or creationism felt threatened by these challenges and wished that these issues had never arisen.
In sum, although the two campaigns for curricular change were substantively different in their learning objectives, they also shared many common features. Afrocentrists and creationists felt disenfranchised from public schools, and they used remarkably similar rhetoric in their fights over curricula. Both issued a critique of schools' content, and they demanded similar concessions: they claimed that students were discriminated against when they were forced to accept the teachings of an oppressive educational system, and they proposed their own scholarly correctives to this crisis. Both challenges, as we shall see in later chapters, can even be thought of as the same type of "identity movements" in education,6 and their proponents viewed as representatives of "discursive politics,"7 in that their goals seem to have been aimed more at creating new understandings about educational processes--and at achieving respect and status for their group in educational decision making--and less toward ensuring measurably improved academic achievement on the part of their children. And finally, when each group of challengers presented its goals to education officials, a majority of those professionals was skittish about incorporating revisions into the curriculum.
So, what came to pass in these targeted school systems, given the similarities in challengers' objectives and educators' reactions to those demands? What I have found in comparing these two challenges is that, following from their skepticism, school personnel delivered fundamentally the same ultimate fate to Afrocentrists and creationists: they fought to preserve their institution's core curricula in history and science. Aided sometimes by the courts and sometimes by public opinion, school staff eventually rebuffed both sets of challenges, so that little, if any, of either Afrocentrists' or creationists' initial curricular demands had serious lasting or widespread effects on students' classroom learning. Fighting to maintain the essence of their "technical core," school personnel ultimately staved off these demands for curricular reforms.
But there is more to the story. What I have found so interesting about the two similar ultimate outcomes in these cases is that professional educators figured out ways to rebuke each challenge using a different repertoire of strategies, which resulted in short-term outcomes that varied on multiple dimensions. When confronted with Afrocentrists' demands, school officials generally treated their challengers more respectfully than they did creationists; they appeared to consider Afrocentric demands as legitimate matters to be deliberated; and they allowed Afrocentric proposals for revised curricula onto their official agendas (if not always into their official curricula). In two of my three cases, Afrocentrists were even able to make real headway into school-district educational practices and to change the official history and social studies curricula taught there--at least temporarily. But I soon discovered that a school system's initial apparent respectfulness toward Afrocentric challengers should not be confused with its willingness to grant lasting accommodation. In each of the three Afrocentric cases, school systems eventually watered down whatever Afrocentric victory had been gained in the contested school system, delivering considerably less concrete change to Afrocentric activists than they had initially promised. I call this a process of gradual dilution. While Afrocentrists may have won a few battles, they ultimately won no wars.
Nor did creationists win any lasting wars, although school system professionals used a different process from "dilution" to thwart their Christian conservative challengers. When confronted by creationists, educators came out with their fists swinging. There was no initial accommodation, which was then blunted by a watering down process. Professional educational leaders were simply unwilling to accommodate their creationist critics. Despite the fact that the Christian conservative reformers, too, were making claims of bias and discrimination, in all four of the creationist cases studied in this book, the education establishment--by which I mean professional educators in positions of authority--lined up far more forcefully against their creationist challengers than their counterparts did against their Afrocentric challengers. With the backing of such organizations as the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Academy of Sciences, school system officials argued that anti-Darwinist, creationist curricula crossed the line that separated church from state, and they fought tooth-and-nail to defeat their creationist foes.
Now, it is true that creationists, in three of the locations I studied, got themselves elected to school boards or legislative bodies with the support of committed voters, and that they sometimes could muster truly impressive political power to impose temporary creationism-friendly law in their school systems (we will see evidence of these advances in chapters 5 and 6). But when creationists did this, education professionals--people who were trained in education schools, who held educational credentials, and who felt that they should have the authority to make decisions in the system--bitterly opposed them. These official educators could wield institutional power, and they fought back mightily and publicly against creationists' gains from the very beginning of the contests. They did this even when creationists had gained access to the inside of those systems--such as by being elected to serve on the school board. When they fought back (and they always did), professional educators' institutional power trumped creationists' political power. Creationists were unable to parlay their early elective and political gains into positive ultimate outcomes for their side. In each and every occasion that a public school system temporarily "went creationist," eventually some type of public backlash, whether by voters or by the courts--but always encouraged by education professionals--reversed those gains. Time and again, creationists tasted victory, only to have schools (or voters, on behalf of schools) take it away from them painfully and publicly.
Like the Afrocentrists, then, creationists were unable to attain lasting, concerted change in the school systems they challenged. Afrocentrists gained some concessions, but educators found ways to make their concessions temporary--often by surreptitious or, at least, behind-the-scenes, means. Creationists, meanwhile, also were sometimes able to seize political power in school systems, but they, too, were eventually defeated, although in the creationists' case, the defeat was trumpeted publicly. In both cases, but by different routes, schools were able effectively to minimize their challengers. It is to both the similarity in these challenges and their variance that this book will be addressed.
What does this matter? Should we care if Afrocentrists and creationists traveled different routes to ultimately similar fates in these seven school systems? Is it important that Afrocentrists were, generally, more effective than creationists in their efforts to claim legitimacy for their ideas and to get those ideas on educators' agenda--at least initially--while creationists' arguments fell on relatively deaf ears? Should our interest also be piqued by the fact that even in Afrocentrists' encounters with educators--where school officials went so far as to praise and even, sometimes, implement policy in their favor--that their efforts ran into eventual obstacles to real change? As subtle as those obstacles to Afrocentric reform may have been, they were still heady, and professional educators were primarily responsible for constructing them. Should we be interested to observe that the obstacles that creationists confronted, on the other hand, were not subtle in the least, and that education bureaucracies, in fact, loudly announced their antipathy toward this set of challengers? The question I am raising is this: even if we grant that studying Afrocentrism and creationism might be interesting in an ethnographic sense, can the outcomes of their challenges teach us anything about social processes that sociologists care about in a more general sense? Can they tell us, in order of ascending institutional magnitude, anything important about feelings of alienation among individuals in challenger movements; about contentious challenges in public schools; about the dynamics of open conflict in large institutions, generally; or even about everyday life in late twentieth-century America? Or were the Afrocentric and creationist challenges just two fringe curricular reform efforts, among many, that occurred on the margins of American pedagogical life and that can tell us nothing newsworthy about our lives in large institutions or about sociological theory?
Not surprisingly, given the book-length attention I devote to these challengers and to the responses they received from school systems, I argue that these challenges did matter, and I will make the case that exploring marginal challenges such as Afrocentrism and creationism, and the outcomes they achieved in schools, can reveal a great deal not only about the racial or religious frustration, respectively, that some groups of citizens experience in public schools in contemporary America, but also about the dynamics surrounding challenge activities in the United States--especially in public schools--and the ways in which organizations like school systems respond to challenges from their different constituencies. The main thrust of the argument is that these school systems managed to absorb protest, to quell institutional change, when either creationists or Afrocentrists were on the frontlines. It was not that Afrocentrists won stunning victory in case after case while creationists suffered humbling defeat; or, conversely, that creationists achieved brilliant success while Afrocentrists were sent away by school systems with no gains. There is no single "success metric" that can account for the outcomes realized in these two different challenges. But by looking at the two challenges in depth--both in comparison to each other, and individually, for each of the seven cases--we can see why and how outcomes developed in the schools as they did. In general, Afrocentrists were better able to get American educators to consider their requests and treat their complaints as valid, which illustrates that some cultural discourses about bias have greater power to resonate with American understandings (at least American educators' understandings), while others are not so endowed. Creationists, meanwhile, often took advantage of voter disinterest in their communities, and collected enough ballots on election day to win majorities on school boards. These events indicate that a structure of political opportunities in any given institution may be beneficial to some challenging groups but not to others. Finally, in the case of both Afrocentrists and creationist challenges, we will see that the presence of organizational routines in large institutions like public schools are sometimes helpful, but often injurious, to challengers. At a more abstract level, studying events such as these seven challenges might prepare us to make better predictions of when challengers will be able to push embattled institutions to change their ways of doing things and, alternately, when these institutions will be able to stay their course, dispensing, one way or another, with their adversaries. These are issues that occupy the highest order of theorizing in the sociological discipline, and they emerge visibly in this comparison of little respected, much vilified education challenges.
The Meanings of these Challenges: Cultural Analysis of Afrocentric and Creationist Efforts
As I began investigating these seven Afrocentric and creationist challenges, seeking clues to what they might be about, their ground-level activities seemed important from many theoretical angles.
From my home branch of cultural sociology, I sought to make sense of the two fascinating challenges using a sort of cultural analysis, in which the meanings of the challenges would emerge front-and-center as provocative aspects of the conflicts to be studied. How were Afrocentrists, as challengers to schools, different from creationists? How were they similar in surprising ways? Some of the most absorbing issues arising from a culturally sensitive look at these challenges include questions about the way these groups defined themselves as people with legitimate claims, and then presented their demands for change to multiple audiences; how they constructed identities for themselves vis a ` vis others in the challenging field (such as Afrocentrists against multiculturalists, and creationists against advocates for prayer in the schools); and how they used particular forms of language in their claims making. I decided to look at the identities that both camps forged for themselves, that they applied to their foes, and that they reserved for their supporters. I tracked the values, practices, and norms that prevailed in each challenge, that bound members to one another, and that kept other groups, with other practices and values, defined as the "enemy."8 I investigated the lines of distinction that separated these groups' members from others in schools; I explored their academic experiences and credentials, their occupational locations in the academic world, and their presence on the country's historical stage. Chief among this line of questioning is an analysis of each group's written and spoken discourses: how they presented their ideas about children, justice, and America to themselves and to other audiences. In the words of cultural sociology, I studied the ideational and symbolic elements of Afrocentrists' and creationists' claims about schools, and schools' ideational and symbolic responses to their critics. Central to this area of study were questions surrounding the challengers' use of rhetoric, and the degree to which their "framing" of the issues resonated with and, perhaps, even changed the wider cultural discourses of the day.
Because a study of these challenges would be desiccated without an understanding of the groups' cultural foundations, I launch the book with an examination of this type. The exploration focuses particularly on the claims each group of challengers made about its position in American educational and social life, and the counterclaims that other institutional sectors (such as the media and political actors) issued in response.
But although a cultural analysis of these challengers leads to important insights into what it was like to be a marginal curricular movement in the United States in the last years of the millennium, it cannot capture the entirety of these groups' experiences in the schools. There is more to Afrocentrism and creationism than the meanings they sought to alter in schools, the identities they crafted, and the rhetoric they used to state their demands. As David Tyack and Larry Cuban indicate in Tinkering toward Utopia, challengers' claims do not fall into a black hole where no one hears them. In the examples studied here, Afrocentrists and creationists advanced their arguments in organizational and political settings, where people in positions of power had the authority to do something about those claims. I found it necessary to examine the various ways that education professionals approached these two sets of challengers, and to look at the consequences that resulted from that varying reception.