The Often Overlooked History of Labor
Education doesn’t tell students what to think but how to think. However, too many textbooks and legislators seem to see education as indoctrination, a troubling trend, especially as the nation celebrates Labor Day.
Generally, some textbooks ignore or marginalize labor. Specifically, some lawmakers in states including Kentucky, Louisiana and Texas oppose instruction in critical thinking and impose fanciful notions as fact – if it pleases their extremist base.
The study American Labor in U.S. History Textbooks, released last month by the Albert Shanker Institute, says, “In the high school history textbooks our children read, too often we find that labor’s role in American history are misrepresented, downplayed or ignored.”
Many high school textbooks disregard or inadequately address topics such as collective bargaining, strikes or lockouts and government’s role in labor relations, the study shows. Further, the books reflect a negative view of unions prevalent in the business community and right-wing politics.
Based on four recent books reaching a “significant percentage” of the market (from major publishers Harcourt/Holt, Houghton Mifflin/McDougal, McGraw-Hill/Glencoe, and Pearson/Prentice Hall), the report traces “spotty, inadequate and slanted coverage of the labor movement.”
The books present some information, like facts about groups such as the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor. But they neglect the labor movement’s role in shaping and defending democracy and pay scant attention to labor in the past half-century.
The report says, “American history textbooks have taken sides in the nation’s intense political debate about organized labor, and the result has been that generations of students have had little concept of labor’s role in American history and the labor movement’s contributions to American workers’ rights and quality of life.”
Textbooks are lousy three ways: There’s little space devoted to workers or their labor movement; books that acknowledge labor are often biased against labor, stressing violence or corruption; and achievements assisted by labor – the 8-hour day, child-labor laws, Social Security, Medicare, Civil Rights and environmental safeguards – are downplayed or ignored.
The study says, “Labor has changed our nation’s history, its economy, and the development of the American social structure. There is little disputing that the labor movement has been a key force in the country’s history.”
For instance, the United Auto Workers union was a key ally for Civil Rights groups; the Teamsters insisted Southern locals defy segregation.
Unfortunately, as C. Wright Mills wrote in his 1956 study The Power Elite, “Knowledge is no longer widely felt as an ideal; it is seen as an instrument. In a society of power and wealth, knowledge is valued as an instrument of power and wealth.”
A good example is shown in Texas GOP’s political platform, which this summer came out against critical thinking. Page 20 of the document says, “We oppose the teaching of higher order thinking skills, critical thinking skills and similar programs.”
In Louisiana, more than 100 schools receiving taxpayer funds are using material from Bob Jones University or Beka Books that assert that the Great Depression was exaggerated, the Ku Klux Klan “tried to be a means of reform,” that environmentalists’ “goal is to destroy the prosperous economies of the world’s richest nations,” and that “the majority of slave owners treated their slaves well.”
In Kentucky, state lawmakers this month sought to impose content on science classes.
“The theory of evolution is not science,” said Kentucky State Rep. Ben Waide (R-Madisonville), a former physical therapist. “Darwin made it up. The theory of evolution has never stood up to scientific scrutiny.”
(Vincent Cassone, Biology chair at the University of Kentucky, told the press, “There is more evidence for evolution than there is for the theory of gravity. It is the finest scientific theory ever devised.”)
Author Danny Weil writes, “For the Republican Party and their followers, thinking is subversive, imagination is a sin and the Republican Party in Texas and elsewhere is working to codify this into public policy.
“The plutocrats can’t have a working-class citizenry that is asking questions of those in power,” he continues. “Instead, the people must be taught the ideology of what is morally acceptable, what rules and regulations to follow, and how to accept and internalize hierarchical authoritarianism. Critical thinking is a direct challenge to the ‘leaders’.”
Citizens need no more accept this situation any more than Irish-Americans, women, Hispanic-Americans and others did. The report concludes saying, “As a result of demands from leaders of the Civil Rights movement and others over the last 40 years, textbook publishers today produce books that more accurately reflect the contributions of Americans of all races and origins to the country’s narrative, its history and its life. We urge them to consider textbooks’ coverage of labor in the same critical light.”
Bill Knight is a freelance writer. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Western Illinois University or Tri States Public Radio.