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White nationalism finds its way into high school curriculum

by Jaymi Gooden - Campus Talk Editor
Mon, Apr 17th 2017 09:20 pm
Photo taken from boston.cbslocal on Twitter

The issue of white nationalism becoming more prevalent as a result of the 2016 presidential election has caused educators to rethink how they carry out their curriculum in regards to social, political and historical education.
Photo taken from boston.cbslocal on Twitter The issue of white nationalism becoming more prevalent as a result of the 2016 presidential election has caused educators to rethink how they carry out their curriculum in regards to social, political and historical education.

What does a white nationalist look like? 

If you're thinking what I am, he or she has got a gnarly buzz cut, a swastika visibly inked somewhere on the body and a hanging tree in their backyard. He or she is most likely uneducated, underdeveloped and unable to detect the word "equality" and "progression" in their mental dictionary. Now, let's talk about Richard Spencer—a college educated, tattoo-free, suit-wearing white man and the leader of the so-called "alt-right," movement who advocates for a homeland just for whites.

If you handed me a picture of Spencer, "white nationalist" would be the farthest term from my mind and apparently, I'm not the only one.

Dropping a handout with a photo on each student's desk, Brookline High School teacher Kathryn Leslie asked her students if Spencer fit the stereotype of a white nationalist. The general consensus was "no." The image Leslie provided was that of a smiling man in a suit coat and open-collared shirt leaning against a brick wall. The group of sophomore students were tackling a subject that many adults struggle discussing themselves. 

The "alt-right" movement, the group of white supremacists also known as neo-Nazi's, that surfaced in the midst of the 2016 presidential election is a topic that many teachers prefer to avoid, but the suburban Boston teacher recently made it part of her curriculum.

"Sometimes, our stereotype of a white nationalist can be different than a young, articulate, clean-cut guy who espouses lots of racist views," said Leslie in The Atlantic article, "The Alt-Right curriculum," by Linda K. Wertheimer. 

The subject seemed appropriate for Leslie and her colleague, Malcolm Cawthorne, who co-teach a course about race and identity in America and how it plays out in students' lives, schools, towns and nations. Cawthorne, who is black, recruited Leslie, who is white, to co-teach the elective because he wanted students to realize that many whites care about confronting racism. 

"When it feels more partisan, we walk more of a tightrope," Leslie said, who viewed teaching about Spencer similar to teaching about the KKK. "For the 'alt-right,' I didn't feel we had to walk a tightrope."

No, we don't. 

Instead, how about other teachers follow Leslie's example and use that non-partisan tightrope as a jump rope? There are ways to deconstruct social issues such as racism and the "alt-right" movement without an educator endorsing any one group. For starters, let students lead the conversation and draw their own conclusions. According to the aforementioned article, Dean of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Diana Hess is on the same page as I am.

"Teachers may be censoring themselves more than necessary when deciding what to teach," Hess said. "Learning about the alt-right, for example, is a lesson in political literacy. Teachers should not ask students to decide whether the alt-right is a good thing, but they can teach how it came about and how it has affected the political system."

Some of Leslie's students have already made up their mind after the lesson Leslie presented on white nationalism. According The Atlantic article, several students cringed as Leslie played a podcast that featured a past interview with Spencer. After the interview, others said little surprised them, given personal experience with racism in Brookline, a town known for its liberal-progressive bent. Brookline High School has gone from 71 percent white two decades ago to 55 percent now. Asked to react to the podcast, nearly every student raised a hand to offer an opinion. 

"Some people in our class didn't know about it," sophomore Alexis Raitt, a Jewish student of Leslie's, said. "That is enough to make it worth teaching,"

Spencer, who's credited with coining the term "alt-right" nearly a decade ago, made national news last November after The Atlantic published a clip of him addressing an alt-right conference in Washington, D.C. According to footage, Spencer got his group of white male followers to echo his "Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail Victory" rallying cry. 

I've already made my mind up about this jokester. Anything I think about white nationalism hasn't been shaped through a high school curriculum that actually included current events, but I wish it had. 

Education goes beyond studying Pearson textbooks in preparation for mediocre exams that only determine how much information a student can retain in a short amount of time. One of the true functions of education is to allow students to critically think about the world around them by presenting them with a variety of platforms on which the world is or can be viewed. 

Unfortunately, Spencer and the "alt-right" movement are one of those platforms. Refusing to discuss it in the classroom won't stop a student from turning into the next Richard Spencer, but perhaps discussing it will give he or she a very clear example of who they do or do not want to be.

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