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Are Cultural History Courses Un-American?

Updated on September 30, 2009

Are Cultural History Courses Un-American?

By, Mel Brown

Mr. DeMartino was my 5th grade Social Science teacher and one day during class, he talked about George Washington Carver, black inventor and scientist who experimented with the many consumer uses of peanuts. He created various products with peanuts such as lotions, medicines, and fuel sources. Carver once partnered with Henry Ford to create one of the first alternative fuel sources for automobiles. This was the first time I ever heard of a black scientist. The remainder of the class was devoted to what was then called Afro American Studies. In that class we discussed issues and historical topics that was not discussed in my normal U.S. History class. I remember asking Mr. DeMartino why weren’t these same topics taught in our U.S. History course? He said something that was pretty interesting. He said that “U.S. History and this school doesn’t teach diversity, but this class will.”

His statement still remains in my mind and is the basis of my belief on how public schools should operate. Up to that point of my education, I had never learned about the many accomplishments of blacks in the U.S. Knowing that there were American heroes, politicians, and scientists who looked similar to me and did things to move this country forward strengthen both my cultural pride and the pride I had for America. I believe that schools should promote a cultural identity that is inclusive of learning and discovering how all cultures have contributed to American culture. In other words, public education should promote a culture that combines the ideas of Ethno nationalism and Nationalism. Cultural Studies courses that are taught in some progressive high schools and universities combines these two ideas. This essay will explain how certain programs combine ethno nationalism and traditional nationalism concepts which result in the promotion of American cultural pride.

Before explaining why the concept of combining cultural pride and nationalism will benefit students, let me briefly define Cultural Identity, Ethno nationalism and Nationalism. According to Gutek, Ethno nationalism is an ideology that combines the ideas of importance of cultural identity and the idea of independence from the larger groups (Gutek 2005). Cultural Identity is the feeling of belonging to a certain group, and Nationalism is ideology that a nation is the central point of all aspects of one’s life. For its first examine the importance of ethno nationalism. Let us examine two examples of educational cultural programs that on the surface may look different, and may support “un-American” ideas but represent a successful joining of the ethno nationalism and traditional nationalism concepts.

Education can be seen as a tool that creates cultural identity as well as a sense of “belonging.” The Black Panther Party was a black revolutionary movement that originated in Oakland California in the mid 60s as a response to police brutality. Black Panther movement sponsored elementary and high schools education centers that were separate from the local high school system in the Oakland CA area. Their programs and courses were used to educate black youth to the uniqueness and beauty of black culture thus instilling pride and social responsibility. Though the movement had a separatist theme with its revolutionary rhetoric, the goals of their of educational programs emphasized participating in the American system such as taking leadership roles in their communities, running for office, and participating in American capitalism to own businesses (McCarthy 1992).

The framers of Black Panther sponsored education also included in its curriculum health education geared towards black community, African history, cultural appreciation, history of suffering and accomplishments of blacks in America, as well as revolutionary rhetoric (McCartney 1992). The goal of this educational program was not only to educate but also enable youth to take social action against oppressive justice system by demanding equal treatment with any means necessary (McCartney 1992). Other cultural studies courses taught in high schools look similar in terms of format to Black Panther sponsored education.

Women’s Studies programs also encourage participation within the system rather than against it while having activist rhetoric. Though Women Studies programs are not common in most public high schools, the few public and private schools that offer the program emphasize the following; history of male dominance in the U.S., importance of equal rights of women, ethnic female experience, and women’s contribution to American society (Butler, Walter, 1991.) Both movements though different opposed the idea of Americanizing schools. The process of Americanization in the United States represent the use of schooling to impose the dominant groups culture on subordinate groups (Gutek 2005). The goal of college level ethnic and cultural courses is the opposite of this idea. Instead of imposing the dominant culture, it attempts include different cultures within the ideal of an American Culture.

California State University system implements an American Institutions requirement that requires all students to take various history courses in order to graduate (San Jose State University, 2005, p.200). Within the choices of history courses are different ethnic history selections such African American, Mexican American, and Asian American Studies courses. Each of these courses describes in in-depth detail their unique histories, stories of struggle, and stories of individual successes, but most importantly each of these courses describes to students how each ethnic group contributed to the success of American culture. I advise students at a particular California State University, every student who has taken a cultural history course had given them a sense of pride and “belongingness” and gives other students outside of those cultural groups a sense of appreciation. Here are some examples of various topics that are featured in these courses.

Students learn that despite current heated political debates over illegal immigration of Mexicans, the illegal immigrant population has contributed greatly to California’s economy and the Mexican American culture has positively affected and influence the world of art, music and architecture not only in California, but in the entire U.S. Asian Americans have also contributed in the same areas as well as influence the political arena. Politicians such Mike Honda and Norm Mineta have not only represented Asian Americans in a positive light, but also lead with integrity and dignity. African Americans, despite their history of struggle and oppression, have given America the gift of innovative political leadership in the form of numerous congressmen, senators, and presidential candidates.

Though these courses both on a high school and college levels are ethnocentric in nature, the stories of cultural group’s contribution to American Society creates a sense of attachment. The bonds of the nationalism are not only found in common language, origins, and religion but it also can be found in common struggle. America is an on-going social experiment with men and women who have different histories and cultural traditions. We must have an educational culture in our schools that promotes these differences and be defined as American.

The reason that these philosophies of educational culture are important is that they push the idea that the “public” in public education needs to be the focus. Any public educational system can not reflect the people or be public if it does not have programs or courses that promotes the ideas of the public. Since America is rich in diversity, we need an educational culture that promotes and celebrates the differences in people, while creating a sense of unity and community. Focusing on the contributions of different cultural groups to the “greatness” of America accomplishes this goal.


Butler, Johnela E. and John, Walter, C. (1991). Transforming the Curriculum. New York: State University of New York.

Gutek, Gerald L. (2004). Philosophical and Ideological Voices in Education. San Francisco: Allyn and Bacon.

McCartney, John T. (1992). Black Power Ideologies: An Essay in African American Political Thought. Pennsylvania: Temple Press.

San Jose State University. (2006). Fall 2006-2008 Course Catalog. San Jose, California: Associated Students.


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