Academic apartheid at Oberlin High

Posted: Aug 27, 2003 12:00 AM

"We are going to have the African-American teacher teach the African-American course."

So proclaimed Ohio Superintendent Bev Reep, resolving the recent controversy that erupted when Oberlin high school planned to have a white instructor teach "black history." News of the plan ignited public outcry from neighborhood parents who said a black teacher would bring more understanding to the topic and that hiring a white teacher would send the wrong message.

So, what exactly is the right message? That we should happily segregate our teachers? This kind of thinking is worse than ugly it is inherently self-limiting. Mandating that only black instructors can teach "black history" shifts the focus from reasoned exploration of history to color of a teacher's skin. It passively implies that all black teachers are reproducing some direct, indisputable product of "the black American experience." Once classes are so categorized, they can easily fall by the wayside of a broader audience. The same cannot be said of "American history" classes or "European history" classes. To categorize African history classes this way tragically limits their audience.

It also risks depriving well-qualified teachers an opportunity to maintain their livelihood based solely on ethnicity. This the U.S. Constitution forbids. Nonetheless, the parents of students at Oberlin feel that they are being nicely progressive and compassionate by staffing "black history" classes with only black teachers.

But consider for a moment: There is no objective history, per se. The accumulation of events - of reality - is too vast to record objectively. At best, we can discern broad trends. In doing so, historians subjectively focus on that which they deem most illuminating. Because historians are always prisoner to their unconscious biases, their own subjective perspectives, objective truth is unknowable. This realization has led the study of history to become increasingly factionalized along the fault lines of race, gender, etc. In an attempt to give voice to the unique experience of the socially or economically marginalized, we have imposed a form of academic apartheid over the study of history. We do this to give voice to the vanquished. We do it to attract and edify marginalized communities. And no doubt, black instructors have a host of unique experiences that they can bring to the table. Just one thing: this high level of academic segregation pretty much ensures that non-blacks will never attend these classes. As a result, the experiences of American blacks, or Africans, women, etc., are further marginalized.

Of course, there are those who swell with pride at the sight of an "African-American" teaching an African studies class. They argue that only a black instructor is qualified to convey the unique struggles and perspectives of black people.

I disagree. The only thing that is accomplished by color coding our history classes is ethnic tribalism. Since we are trying hard to eliminate color lines, a good place to start might be to appoint instructors based on their credentials and professional expertise, rather than the color of their skin. This may no longer be considered politically correct, but it is the right thing to do.