School Reform, Schools Closings, and Historic Memory: A Tragedy in the Making

teens-classroom-350I am an historian by training and a history teacher by profession, and one of the dimensions of the dominant education policies in this country which disturb me the most is how they erase history and historic memory.

I am not just talking about marginalizing the teaching of history,though that is definitely one direct consequence of current reform policies. Even more serious are institutional decisions which end up destroying historical memory and the possibility of using the wisdom and cultural capital of past generations.

First among these are school closings, which have had their primary effect in inner-city neighborhoods, from Buffalo to Baltimore to Chicago to Los Angeles. These so called “failing schools” have all had rich histories, some of them close to a hundred years in the making, which involve themes ranging from migration and immigration, to musical creativity, to changing economies and neighborhoods, which live in the experience of alumni as well as documents the schools themselves have preserved.

Closing the schools not only shatters the possibility of drawing upon that rich cultural capital, it sends a message to students that nothing in the past is that important, including their own families and cultural traditions, treating them as clay to be molded by people who see the past- at least for people like them — only as failure.

Second, and connected, is the destruction of teaching as a lifetime profession, reflected not only in the firings and layoffs associated with schools closings, but with thinly disguised efforts to drive veteran teachers out of the profession through a combination of burdensome and humiliating assessments and observations, and open preference for teachers who come from alternative certification programs like Teach for America where the vast majority of participants stay for only a few years. More and more, the schools in poor and working class neighborhoods are filled with young teachers who don’t live in those communities, don’t know anything about their histories, and stay only a few years.

All this has happened very fast, but we need to ponder its consequences. Basically, what we have done is erased the power of historic memory among a whole generation of young people growing up in poor communities, implicitly suggesting that they are in possession of no traditions worthy or preserving and that the people most important in their lives, family members, neighbors, religious leaders, and the like, are not to be looked to for wisdom, leadership and inspiration.

mark naisonAnd if school reformers have their way, this erasure of memory will spread to public schools everywhere, treating children not as members of families and communities whose traditions can enrich teaching and learning, but as clay to be molded as the behest of powerful elites.

This has been going on under the radar screen for many years. It is time its undemocratic implications be exposed and discussed.

Mark Naison
With A Brooklyn Accent

Friday, 1 November 2013


  1. Tom Sanchez says

    Mr. Naison,

    I fully agree with the thesis of your article. The same designers of “globalization” and the “new world order” (Bush 1, Rumsfeld, Koch Family, etc.) are systematically erasing historic memory from poor and immigrant neighborhoods. This is by design to, as you said, send a message to children that their communities and traditions have no value, to be ignorant of them, period, as a method to make those communities insecure, complacent, and acquiescent to governmental institutions and the elites that truly run them.

    There is a crucial detail that your article leaves out. The forces that wish to erase historic memory and overtake publication are doing this in all neighborhoods, not just the poor, immigrant ones. This is an issue that affects all American children and adults. By marginalizing knowledge and practice of traditions and community history, whether white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant wealthy or poor immigrant, the public is withheld from knowing their past and marginalizes what little past they’re aware of in order to trivialize their traditions and be more easily controlled by the powers that be. This is what well-orchestrated authoritarian regimes have always attempted. Our government has been on the course to authoritarian for the last 35 years. You, Mr. Naison, eloquently and clearly state one of the many destructive results of that authoritarianism.

  2. harry says

    Sorry, I read no plan of action in your article. The county north of mine has a plan which I think is about as bad as one could devise. It has a high dropout rate and a high criminal rate , so they let the prison system handle the problem of the education of the youth. I would suggest the prison system is also a education system, but with different objectives. The previous five generations of my family include teachers and soldiers, a strange pair. I have been both but am now too old to be either.
    Statistics tell us that young people without an education tend to be young people without jobs. That means those with jobs must pay more in taxes to help those people without jobs. That takes money out of the economy and our GDP drops. My grand father taught young men a trade so they could get a job and become a tax payer instead of a tax user. I have found it cost less to put a young person into a trade school with room and board per year than it costs to send such a person to prison for a year. The latter creates a tax payer whereas the former creates a tax user. So I would suggest we try to create tax payers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *