Towards a Happier Halloween; A Welcome Change

When my school district announced this week that celebrations of Halloween and Valentine’s Day would have to take place without the schools’ participation, I was licking my chops waiting until I could get home and check out the comments sections of the various media outlets who had reported the story.  “Don’t read the comments” is usually solid advice because there’s really no way to consistently avoid the racism, hate, and anger that drives Trumpistanians to their keyboards anytime a reasonable new policy or law is proposed.

But this was different.  I couldn’t wait to read in how many ways people could lament “It was good enough for me; it’s good enough for my kids.”  Of all the reasons that schools, companies, and governments should avoid making changes, this is by far the lamest, and yet I knew I was going to be treated to plenty of flavors of that argument.  I was quite eager to get to a spot where I could enjoy the latest Baskin and Robbins of silly comments.

I wasn’t disappointed. 

When my students brought up the issue before class on Friday, I asked them why they were so upset that the district decided to ask families to celebrate these holidays at home, among friends, or among neighbors.  Unlike the claims being made online, the district wasn’t “canceling” Halloween and Valentine’s Day.  They just decided not to “celebrate” at school. Several students were well versed in the “It was good enough for me, it should be good enough for kids today” line of thinking and weren’t afraid to use it.  Sitting in every one of my classes, however, were several Muslim students who were acting like marginalized students always do.  Their heads were down. They were biting their tongues. They were hoping for the moment to pass.  

But because it’s me, that’s not how things work.  I asked the class to put themselves into the shoes of students whose culture does not celebrate Halloween.  Was it fair to ask those students to simply “go home” on Halloween as many folks were suggesting online?  Were they supposed to grit their teeth and power through a very offensive celebration just so they didn’t make other children uncomfortable?  Why was it so hard to take into account the many cultures that populate our schools and find a way to not intentionally piss them off?

A common reply was something like “But we’ve ALWAYS done it that way!”  Well, congratulations, you’ve got a nice long streak of disrespectful behavior to defend.  Whenever people make the argument that because we’ve been doing something that disrespects the values of our country for a long time, we should just go on doing it, I could immediately go to the low-hanging fruit of slavery, the disenfranchisement of women, Jim Crow, etc to suggest that maybe long-established practices should actually be done away with.  Martin Luther King’s quote that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” is usually enough to get even slightly open-minded people to agree that most change is probably good.

A more sophisticated argument, however, would have us look at the very heart of our education system: the curriculum.  Our public schools are the bastions of our society’s values.  Our public schools are charged with preserving the values upon which this country was founded and to be the engines of change when change is needed.  And change is always needed. 

What our curriculum contains does matter.  The things that we decide as a society are important for our children to learn does make a difference in how our society functions.  If we are not able to examine our curriculum and update it, we are doomed to live in a society less just and less truly American than it could be.  Dr. King’s arc ain’t bending at all.   

Whenever discussions break out that have “It was good enough for me; it’s good enough for my kids” in them, I head back into the archives and pull out a geography text that my father-in-law gave me before he passed.  He was a long time teacher and had collected some really sweet old textbooks that shed a lot of light on the problems with the “It was good enough for me” arguments.  The clear truth is, many of these ideas were NOT, in fact, good enough for you.  They were not good enough for anyone.  

Monteith’s “Physical and Intermediate Geography”, published in 1870, and used in schools throughout the country, contains some pretty amazing claims that students learned and passed on to their children until someone had the courage to say “Enough!”  

Here are some ditties. 

On page 46: 

“American Indians in disposition are melancholy, revengeful, and jealous, and feel bodily pain less acutely than the whites.”

“Ethiopians, or the black race, thrive in the heat and dampness of the tropics where the white man soon dies.”

“Malays are treacherous, ferocious, and less sensible to pain than other races.”

“Caucasians, or white race, comprise the most powerful and enlightened nations of the world.”

And later…

“Columbus sailed Westward; and, by his discovery of the Western Continent, two worlds became acquainted with each other, for their mutual development and advantage. One contributed its vast resources; the other, its blessings of civilization and vigor of intellect.”

True, this was a textbook from 1870.  But if the “It was good enough for me” argument had held all these years, we’d still be teaching this.  

So when a school, a business, or a government proposes some new policy, before you go full blown nostalgic on us, ask yourself whether this new policy is helping us on our way to a more just society.  Yes, your child may not be able to dress up like a princess for half a day this year, but ten of her classmates are not feeling like shit because your child is living out some macabre fantasy. 

Change is needed.  Change is always needed.

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