Learning about “American” ideologies, values, and identities in public schools
By | Spencer Childress, EdD
Those with red and blue affiliations, or those with agendas based in finance and power, make declarations all too often about what it means to be an American and what you ought to do to consider yourself a good one. These declarations are the opposite of what inspired this issue of DJEC. Rather than certainty, posturing, or grandstanding, we wanted to try to ask the right questions of ourselves and of the school settings that our children occupy each and every day. The idea is for we Americans to take an inventory of why we are like this, and if we want something different for the next generation of Americans, what needs to change? School ethnic-racial socialization is defined as the way youth come to understand race and identity in school, one component of which is mainstream American socialization. This kind of socialization in school includes learning a pride in US values and norms, including neoliberal ideologies like individualism and merit-based competition (Byrd, 2017).
Indoctrinating children with these ideas of who they are based on where they live could be desirable for some, but for others it represents a type of false confidence supported by revisionism, convenient amnesia, and the refusal to reckon. Filmmaker Raoul Peck (2021) described this American cognitive framework as “the disturbing confidence of ignorance.” Within the main article of this issue, the Denver metro area community members have beautiful, thoughtful ideas on how schools can help students remove this veil of ignorance, the importance of which cannot be overstated.
This disturbing confidence described by Peck (2021) often manifests as a symptom, caused by the disease of American ignorance. But there are other symptoms too, like Daunte Wright being murdered in Minneapolis almost one year after George Floyd was murdered in the same city, while we discuss intent and protocol. Or the acceptance of the most recent shooting at a grocery store in Boulder, the memory of which dissipates when we commit to continuing the gun debate, as if the word debate weren’t a symptom of the very same ignorance. This ignorance leads to Americans finding new and creative ways to suppress votes, deny sick people healthcare, withhold living wages, kill an already dying planet, incarcerate more humans than any other country on Earth, and embolden domestic terrorists and White supremacists. This ignorance has convoluted Christianity and consumer capitalism, allowing misrepresentations of the former to oppress almost as many as the cruel realities of the latter. This ignorance exposes itself further through symptoms of hypersensitivity and outrage, like when someone decides to kneel in front of an American flag, or change the name of a football team. If any of these symptoms of American ignorance caused your fist to clench or your jaw to tighten, I ask again, why are we STILL like this?
I recently completed my doctoral research study in Aurora, asking Black American high school students about their socialization experiences at school, including mainstream American socialization. In a focus group interview, students described hearing messages about America that include why this country is unique/special, learning the core American values, and being fed a curriculum that largely highlights the heroics of White men. As the data from this research demonstrate, messages that have perhaps been internalized in the past are being dismissed, and in turn, students are looking at teachers and school settings with mistrust. Young people are troubled by the casualness and brevity with which schools treat things like the genocide and removal of Native peoples, the kidnapping and enslavement of Black people, or the invention and investment in whiteness. They understand that a through line exists from historical inequities and atrocities to current ones, and they want their teachers to help them find it. Students are craving a depth of knowledge of America, including contemporary discussions of what’s currently happening in their neighborhoods and city.
What they are getting instead is information filtered through a colonial White lens that no longer (if it ever did) meets their needs or captures their reality. Denver/metro community members and students are calling for an intersectional American identity, one that is not simply inclusive of, but is built upon, the spectrum of identities that Americans experience and practice. They are calling for a real, ongoing reckoning with race and power because from what I can tell, folks are not only exhausted but also struggling to understand what to do with the trauma that comes with watching this country repeatedly make the same mistakes. I do not know if the idea of being “proud to be an American” is irreparable or not, but I do believe it’s possible for us to create something new and different to be proud of, because in many ways our lives and future depend on it.
Byrd, C. (2017). The complexity of school racial climate: Reliability and validity of a new measure for secondary students. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 87(4), 700-721. doi:10.1111/bjep.12179
Peck, R., and Grellety, R. (Executive Producers). (2021). Exterminate all the brutes [TV series]. Velvet Films; HBO Documentaries.
Spencer Childress, EdD, is a counselor in Aurora, editor at DJEC, and avid learner/unlearner.