Hudspeth in Wilton: An individual choice, not a requirement

Stephen Hudspeth

Stephen Hudspeth

Staff / Hearst Connecticut Media

I’ve reviewed recently the state’s 280-page curriculum on Black and Latino Studies mandated for use in all public schools statewide, including Wilton’s. It’s a very impressive document, publicly available and well worth reviewing. The curriculum is designed for a one-credit, year-long elective course, with “elective” being a key word. That means that it’s not a required course for any student; thus, the only requirement imposed by the state is that this course be offered by all school districts, not required of all students.

The curriculum also offers alternatives that individual schools can choose among and allows for individual school supplementation to further enrich the content and approach of the curriculum as individual districts choose. That process of individual tailoring by school districts, including Wilton’s, is expected to be accomplished over this coming summer.

The curriculum is remarkable in both its breadth and its fascinating and insightful detail. Clearly, very careful work has gone into creating it. The curriculum describes itself as “represent[ing] American history that is inclusive, rather than absent of Black and Latino history.” Its stated objective is “to inspire within each student a desire to reimagine the present and future based on lessons learned from the past and…to develop their own ideas to ensure we continue to strive for justice, equity, and unity of all people.”

The curriculum lives up to those admirable objectives. Large portions encompass a wide range of history from ancient times to the late 20th Century. Other portions address elements as diverse as archeology and anthropology and the impact of constitutions, laws, individual treaties, and broader international agreements. The curriculum encourages students to investigate local original-source documents, including interactively with town historical societies and libraries, to understand how slavery manifested itself in the North as well as in the South.

Frankly, this is a course I would like to take myself. And isn’t it important to educate our children seriously about foundational matters in our nation’s history and their consequences -- in age-appropriate ways, of course - as part of understanding who we are as a nation? Or should we have them ignore the portions of our history that are not so pleasant for us to think about today, like slavery and its consequences? That’s not what one normally thinks of as history.

In the words of the past president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters Jacques Barzun, writing about 500 years of Western cultural life from 1500 to the present: “[T]he fruits of western culture…have not sprouted out of the ground like weeds; they are the work of innumerable hands and heads.” The earliest portions of those 500 years encompass Christopher Columbus and the bringing of slavery to the Caribbean and also, a century later, the founding of Jamestown and slavery’s introduction to North America.

From those ancient roots sprang an institution that had a very significant role in American society, ranging from the so-called triangular trade that carried slaves, molasses, and manufactured goods among Europe, Africa and the Americas (making shipowners and merchants right here in New England wealthy) to the intensive cultivation of cotton following the invention of the cotton gin, enriching not only plantation owners in the South but also textile-mill operators here in New England, all from the fruits of slavery. In fact, by the mid-19th century the value of slaves, measured at auction-block prices, rivaled that of all of American manufacturing and railroads, and African-American soldiers, over 150,000 strong, had a major role on the battlefield in bringing an end to the Civil War. So this history relates directly to us and encompasses slaveholding right here in Connecticut until its (gradually accomplished) final elimination in 1848. Yet even as slavery dictated the lives of those enslaved, a rich culture evolved and enriched America in many ways.

So the take-homes are, first, that this course is not required of any student, and second, that it’s a course from which its students can gain a real sense of what life was like over centuries. They’ll also gain a much larger framework into which to put that information, spanning not only our state and nation but also the larger world. They’ll understand better how to grasp complex fact patterns and draw information and conclusions for themselves.

In short, this is a course that can excite students and empower them in their learning. It will definitely be worth taking, but whether in fact to take it will always be an individual choice, not a requirement either of the state or of the Wilton Schools.