Last night, I gave a lecture on the history of the Vietnam War to a cross section of Catholic high school students from Bergen County who had joined together to put on a performance of the musical "Miss Saigon." This was the fourth history lecture I had given to high school students in the last two years. My other lectures, where the topic was the multicultural origins of Bronx hip hop, were given at West Catholic High School near Hartford Conn, at Trinity School on Manhattan's Upper West Side, and at Sheepshead Bay High School in Brooklyn.
If something sounds strange to you think about this: Only one of those three schools was a public high school! Is it that the subjects of these lecture, the history of the Vietnam War, and the history of Hip Hop, have no interest to public school students? I think, if you spoke to public high school teachers, that the opposite is true. Public high schools students would love to talk about these subjects.
So what is getting in the way? TESTS! Public high schools, especially those in working class and middle class communities, are so desperate to have their students score well on standardized tests- under the threat of closure- that they simply have no time to have lectures on subjects which may get students excited about history, but will not translate into higher scores on high stakes tests
This situation is in huge contrast to what I experienced 10 years ago when I joined with scholars and community leaders to launch the Bronx African American History Projects. Within three years of the projects founding, I was invited to give lectures, presentations and tours to students at more than
20 Bronx public schools. Among these were lectures at at least five Bronx high schools, including small schools located at Evander Childs,
Taft and Morris High Schools.
These lectures, some of which were attended by upwards of 500 students, were incredibly well received, in part because I affirmed cultural traditions the students there viewed as their own. Students were clapping, shouting, joining me on stage, I even got invited to speak at one high school graduation
So what happened? I haven't received an invitation to speak from a Bronx high school in more than 6 years
School grades happened
School closings happened
And a whole generation of Bronx high school students, and their teachers were made to feel that the only thing that counted in their education were scores on their tests.