Representations of Brown V. Board of Education in Selected Educational Resources for Middle School Students

Article excerpt

In commenting on the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing legal segregation in public education, historian Waldo E. Martin, Jr. observed that,

   Brown deserves to be recognized for its enormously liberating impact
    on America and the world. Post-Brown American society was forced to
    look deep within itself and confront the fundamental problem of
    white racism and its impact on whites and blacks alike....
    Reflecting unconditional faith in the best of the founding American
    ideals, Brown signifies hope for America's future. It stands for a
    better America: a humane, inclusive, and free America. (1)

Echoing themes found in the legal scholarship of Mark Tushnet and Katya Lezin, Martin pointed out that Brown "has profoundly influenced the evolution of 'rights consciousness' within American society--that is, judicial activism on behalf of human rights," most notably those of oppressed groups and individuals. (2) Because of Brown's liberating effects on American society, its vindication of the nation's original egalitarian ideals, and its importance in the ongoing legal campaigns to end racial oppression, it is essential that young students have access to resources offering a clear and accurate analysis of the decision and its significance in U.S. history. In an effort to understand how well this objective is being met by some educational materials currently available, this essay will draw on current historical scholarship to evaluate representations of Brown in selected books and other resources for students at the middle school level. These resources will be evaluated as historical and pedagogical texts, and I will draw upon my personal experiences as a history educator in assessing these materials.

Historians David Hackett Fisher and James M. McPherson in the introduction to their book series, Pivotal Moments in American History, articulated the "current state of historical writing," pointing to the "growing attention to the experiences of ordinary people, increasing sensitivity to issues of gender, class, and ethnicity, and deep interest in large structures and processes." New historical studies "seek to combine this new scholarship with old ideas of history as a narrative art and traditional models of sound scholarship, mature judgment, and good writing." (3) Drawing on this standard for historical writing, the middle school texts to be valued most highly will be those that: (1) include ordinary people's stories along with the stories of famous leaders; (2) are sensitive to gender, class, race, and ethnicity issues; (3) make connections between individual events and larger national and international structures and institutions; and (4) exhibit good storytelling and a strong grasp of the historical facts.

With regard to pedagogical approaches, in their essay "Making Sense of Accounts of History," Margaret G. McKeown and Isabel L. Beck provided some useful and specific information about what it means for an historical text to tell a story well. They valued most highly texts that (1) use a narrative structure that is causal, explanatory, and engaging, and (2) give "voice to the humanity of events being portrayed and the threads that connect them to principles, motivations, and consequences." (4)

With regard to my teaching experience, for five years I served as Director of Education at an eighteenth-century historic house museum in the northeastern United States. A Revolutionary War historical site and the scene of visits by Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, John and Abigail Adams, Aaron Burr, and William Lee, an enslaved African and personal attendant to George Washington during the Revolution, the museum offers rich opportunities for education in early American history. Following the lead of many public schools' curricular emphasis on the use of primary source materials in social studies courses, I developed and taught educational modules for middle and high school classes in which students combined the study of material culture with primary source documents to illuminate the history of egalitarian ideals in the Revolutionary era and the early years of the United States. …