The shock of seeing so many Black people killed this summer in brutal police actions has seared the conscience of the nation. The memory of the 2015 murder of nine African Americans at a Bible study in Charleston, S.C., by an unrepentant white supremacist needs to weigh on America as a grim warning of the evil that is present and pernicious.
It is a crucible moment for higher education. For students and all of us, an understanding of racism in America and how to address it is a tool of citizenship that can lead the nation forward.
The “why” of such an education is self-evident; more challenging is the “how.” The University of Pittsburgh’s requirement for all new students to take a course on anti-Black racism places the matter in the clearest light. In the syllabus for the University of Pittsburgh’s Anti-Black Racism: History, Ideology, and Resistance PITT 0210, the stated outcomes include, “Students will leave the course with an introduction to the Black radical tradition, resistance to Anti-Black racism, and strategies to be anti-racist in everyday life (emphasis added).” In keeping with the urgency of the matter, Pitt stipulates that students may not drop the course.
Can such a course be truly effective when decontextualized from a larger story of the nation? The story of America contains a struggle for justice and equality, often heart-rending, sometimes triumphant. Anti-Black racism cannot be separated from this story — just as the tragedies of native peoples in America, anti-Semitism, or the mistreatment of Chinese and Japanese people in America are all deeply embedded in our history and call for understanding and attention.
It is unclear that PITT 0210 can achieve this. Evidence from the corporate world, moreover, suggests that mandatory diversity training is largely ineffective. Why a required, sharply focused course would be more effective in college is most unclear.
Ignorance and the careless teaching of United States history, with all its glories and all its warts, has not helped the nation. Surveys indicate that college graduates have a hard time explaining accurately what the Emancipation Proclamation did and did not accomplish or the significance of the 13th Amendment. It is likely that even fewer would be able to explain why the late John Lewis stated in 2017, “Without freedom of speech and the right to dissent, the Civil Rights movement would have been a bird without wings.”
It is not just a disgrace, but it is a liability for the nation, that only 18% of colleges and universities require the study of U.S. history or government. Such courses should now be different, more expansively and thoughtfully weaving the history of racism into the broader themes of American history. This is the way students can engage with the challenges in a way that will better prepare them for citizenship.
The promise of America, the correction of its errors and sins, will not be fulfilled by an ignorant citizenry. Well-meaning but reflexive responses like Pitt’s Anti-Black Racism course are likely to fall short of a long overdue commitment to ensure that American college graduates understand America.
Michael Poliakoff is president of the independent, nonprofit American Council of Trustees and Alumni.