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Kate Shuster Whitman Teaches the Movement

Whitman students, faculty and staff as well as many community members, gathered in the Young Ballroom in the Reid Campus Center at 7 pm on Monday night to hear Dr. Kate Shuster deliver a talk entitled “Why the Movement Matters: Learning from America’s Civil Rights Struggles.”

Kate Shuster
Dr. Kate Shuster. Photo by Stacie Bellairs '17.

Shuster’s talk was part of the opening events for the third year of the Whitman Teaches the Movement program, and addressed the ways in which the current models for teaching Civil Rights history may be flawed. “We operate in schemas, or existing theories, and when we learn something new we either fit it into that schema, and if it doesn’t fit we get uncomfortable,” Shuster said in her talk. “We need that uncomfortability, because that’s when real learning occurs.”

According to a study done by Shuster and the Southern Poverty Law Center, 35% of states failed to teach the Civil Rights Movement to their school-age students in an adequate way. The study, called “The State of Civil Rights Education 2011,” looked at state standards for teaching Civil Rights, and diagnosed whether they were giving students a substantial understanding of history during that time. Other findings included that states further away from the South had the lowest grades. Shuster attributes the pattern in part to the lack of a concentration of African Americans in the states west of the Mississippi River. States who received ‘A’ grades included Alabama, Florida and New York.

“Learning is bounded by the content that is available to us,” she said. “The question, however, is not how do we study the Civil Rights Movement, but how should we study it.”

Shuster suggests that state standards should strive to move beyond the master narrative, and instead examine that which has become hidden or overlooked.

“We tend to tell a redemptive narrative about white people,” she said.

She also suggests a nationwide refusal to sanitize the past or teach the movement only in terms of absolutes: for example, instances of violence against Civil Rights activists and violence within the movement itself should not be removed from the history of Civil Rights.

She also believes that “[students] don’t have the tools they need to understand today’s inequalities.”

Inspired by the news that Washington was one of the states given a failing grade in how they teach Civil Rights, Whitman’s Student Engagement Center started the Whitman Teaches the Movement program in 2011. In partnership with Walla Walla Public Schools and the Southern Poverty Law Center, Whitman students will be teaching the history of the Civil Rights Movement to students from kindergarten to seniors in high school in the Walla Walla area. Students will be teaching in classrooms from Feb. 3-14.