Nonfiction Matters Because of Who We Sit Next to In Class
So here it is the weekend before July 4th, and a divided Supreme Court rules that the true meaning of Brown v. Board of Ed. is that there can be no racial discrimination in schools — even plans designed to overcome racial discrimination. If you followed this in the New York Times, you saw Juan Williams — the well-known reporter and author of a biography of Thurgood Marshall — argue in an Op-Ed that this decision fit with Marshall’s idea — that the goal was to give equal resources and opportunities to blacks, not necessarily to integrate schools; and you read Robert Carter, who had actually argued Brown in 1954, state that this ruling was a perversion of history — since in the 50’s race was used to deny blacks opportunities, and now the justices were taking the same concept, "racial discrimination," and turning it upside down.
In other words, this new ruling is a claim about history. Since every school in America teaches American History — generally in 5th, 8th, and 11th grades — it seems obvious to me that every school should begin their classes in the fall by looking at this decision, and questioning whether it does or does not accord with history. Younger classes could use that as a jumping off point for reviewing the history of the Civil Rights movement — using any of the fine books that are now being written about it, say Russell Freedman’s Freedom Walkers, or Ann Bausum’s Freedom Riders. Eighth graders might act out the arguments before the court. High school kids might review the many studies that were done after 2004, showing how schools today are, in many ways, as segregated as they were in 1954 — for example www.nea,org/brownvboard/index2.html#resegregation.
In other words, taking this ruling seriously means neither attacking it nor celebrating it, but, instead, thinking about it. That is what nonfiction invites — engaged thinking. I cannot imagine why any teacher would assign yet another class to read To Kill a Mockingbird when, instead, her class could be studying and debating this ruling — which is likely to decide who each student in that class is likely to sit next to, share a table with at lunch, and befriend.