(Un)Equal Education

by K K Hausman

Every day, I am surrounded by eager learners from all around the country – both at Texas A&M University and my students at the University of Maryland. They made it through the application process via a number of channels, but all share the desire to learn and the ability to pass standardized tests.

The matter of standardized tests is one that concerns me, as the education each learner receives in preparation for higher-education varies so widely. Lacking a standard set of textbooks and standard curriculum set at the Federal level, individual States are allowed to decide how their students are presented with every facet of education until they step out into the big wide world. The most commonly-argued aspect of this is on the topic of evolution and its interrelation with religious doctrine.

However, for me, an even simpler issue arises when I consider my own elementary and secondary education. As we moved around several times during my childhood, I had the opportunity to experience the variety of educational topic coverage first hand. Take one example – that little skirmish between Northern and Southern states that took place in the 1800’s.

In Kentucky, this was called the “Civil War” which was fought and won by the North in order to free the slaves from the evils that befell them in the South. Lessons focused on the Underground Railroad and struggles to free the slaves in the South. No mention was given to slaves in the North or to indentured servitude on both sides. But it was clear the South was inherently evil in its actions and the war was about liberation and salvation for the enslaved.

In Arizona, the same event was called “The War Between the States” which was fought in the Eastern part of the US. Lessons spoke of brother fighting against brother and of the economic conflicts behind the struggle between the industrialized North and the agricultural South. Slavery was mentioned only as one of Lincoln’s rallying points, and as an economic benefit in working the fields and farms in the South along with the other indentured servants.

In Mississippi and Tennessee, the same event was now called “The War of Northern Aggression” and depicted as an invasion of the South by Northern oppressors. Lessons spoke of the taxes to be levied by distant lawmakers in New England with close corollaries drawn to the American Revolution’s struggles against taxation and economic mandate from the distant British government. Lessons spoke proudly of the South’s rich agricultural and cultural history and decried the pollution and industrialized elimination of craftsman in place of mass manufactured goods by the North.

In Texas, we were back again to calling the event the “Civil War” but now it was presented as a minor matter in the State’s history since Texas had been its own country. Lessons covered the onerous constitution put into place by the “carpetbaggers” of the North and “scalawag” traitors from the South, the valiant actions of the State legislature slipping into the capital in secret to vote out the Yankee Constitution, putting in place a temporary constitution for a few days, and then producing the amazing document we have today (so lengthy, even some building codes are enumerated *sigh*).

All lessons in each of these states covered roughly the same events, on roughly the same dates, involving people of the same names, in the same basic locations…and yet, from a learning perspective, these lessons had nothing more to do with each other than those circumstantial details. We were clearly studying very different wars.

So, the student who has only their own local version of history or biology or economics or pick-a-subject sits down to take that all important test that will determine whether they get into College. Will the standardized test match well with what they learned about the civil unrest and conflict in the US between 1861 and 1865? Lacking a standard for teaching and a standard for educational curriculum, the answer to that is a matter of luck or fortune of birth. A very un-equal education when measured from state to state across this great nation of ours.