Historical Context: DEI in History Classrooms

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In March I had the good fortune to participate in this year’s American Association of Colleges & Universities Conference (AACU) on Diversity, Equity, and Student Success in Philadelphia, PA. Preparing for my roundtable discussion on “Diversifying the US History Survey” prodded me to think about what I’m currently doing in my courses, and encouraged some dialogue with students about what is/not working from their perspectives.


Often we as teachers are not the best judges of what our students require to be successful because we subconsciously lean on our own educational experiences when we develop expectations of our students’ needs. Thinking about diversity and inclusion in the college history classroom, therefore, requires us to reflect on our biases and open ourselves up to learning about topics that we might not have studied in graduate school to encourage our own growth, and our students'. In the United States history survey courses, inclusion demands that we expand the narrative beyond electoral wins and losses and look more deeply into how decision-making by leaders (local, state, and national) has impacted the diverse communities that together create our nation. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in history education necessitates consideration not just of race and gender, but also economics and social class, particularly the way in which those in political power often utilize their advantages to the detriment of others. 


After hearing from colleagues in states with anti-DEI legislation either passed or pending it struck me that at the heart of the movement is fear of the unknown – of people and ideologies that are different from those who for so long have had political and economic control. Historically there is nothing new about this kind of resistance. While I feel fortunate to teach in a so-called “blue state,” the angry sentiments of DEI resistance exist in every community, though their voices and the power they wield are stronger in some than others. As I listened to presentations at the AACU conference it was reaffirmed for me that what my students need most is a broad knowledge of our national past so they can better understand the current debates about DEI and place those debates within historical context. In other words, a student who knows nothing about the movement for civil rights in the United States will fail to understand the detrimental impact of anti-DEI legislation. 


Yesterday students in my US History since 1877 class watched a segment of the classic documentary “Eyes on the Prize” as part of a larger discussion of school desegregation efforts in the 1950s/1960s. The community college where I teach has approximately 11% students who identify as black and/or African American, and is a federally- designated Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI). Many of my students did not realize that segregated schools were a part of our national history. Having these conversations about the history of civil rights reminds us all that the playing field has never been equal and that there is considerable danger in political movements that seek to silence the very efforts that have moved us towards a more integrated society (with much work still left to do).


I would love to hear from Macmillan Community members about the challenges they are facing in their communities related to DEI. What kinds of resources are you as educators relying on to help students understand the centrality of diversity to our national history? And, what kinds of resources would be helpful as we navigate these challenging educational waters? 


Please share by commenting here or emailing me at suzannekmccormack@gmail.com

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.