Friday, July 2, 2010

Why the History of Hip-Hop Should Be Taught in School

When the Texas School Board finalized its updated history curriculum much of the attention was focused on the strange omission of Thomas Jefferson from a list of revolution-stoking writers. But among the hundreds of changes, one little-noticed change to the curriculum was an introduction of music influences on U.S. culture to the high school classroom.

By By Andrew Bluebond

Microphone, Campus Progress

When the Texas School Board finalized its updated history curriculum, much of the attention was focused on the strange omission of Thomas Jefferson from a list of revolution-stoking writers. But among the hundreds of changes, one little-noticed change to the curriculum was an introduction of music influences on U.S. culture to the high school classroom.

However, not all genres made the cut. While country music and rock ‘n’ roll were included, notably absent was the fastest growing music movement of the past three decades: hip-hop.

The decision to exclude hip-hop was not an oversight. The board considered multiple proposals to include hip-hop as an important cultural movement, but the board’s conservative majority defeated each one. Including hip-hop was among the expert recommendations for the new curriculum, but the board removed it from the standards because they deemed some of the lyrics offensive because of their language, violence, and drug use.

Hip-hop, though, may have been unfairly singled-out for its content. Country music and rock ‘n’ roll are no strangers to glorified violence and drug use. Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame members Lou Reed and Eric Clapton extolled their lives of heroin and cocaine use respectively in their work, and there is no shortage of violence in the music of Black Sabbath. Country music has a half-century long affair with alcohol abuse and saw two of its most popular artists — Garth Brooks and the Dixie Chicks — take on retaliation to domestic violence during the last decade.

Andrew J. Ryan, a professor of math, hip-hop, and technology at George Mason University, says that there is a generational gap at work that prevents hip-hop from achieving the level of acceptance that country and rock have.

“While there was a great eagerness by the boomers to archive and document the [19]40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, and the ‘70s, they are only recently getting to coverage of hip-hop and the ‘80s and ‘90s have not been fully investigated in a classroom sense,” Ryan says.

Ryan, who is currently writing a book titled, The Responsible Use of Hip-Hop in the Classroom, says he has heard history called “what men agree on,” and he believes that this can help explain the coming generational shift in what history classrooms include. “Generation Y and the millennials will soon outnumber [baby] boomers,” Ryan says. He adds that this change will “usher in a necessity to rewrite recent history.”

Ryan may be right. A new era of history curricula may begin when education policy makers become sufficiently aged, but that could take decades, and millions of students will move through U.S. history classes in the meantime. Instead, perhaps it’s time to start looking at ways to overcome the barriers to hip-hop’s inclusion.

Jason Dzik, a history teacher at Archbishop Hoban High School in Akron, Ohio, who also serves on the committee updating the standards for social studies classes in the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland says teaching hip-hop in high school history classes is both possible and potentially fruitful for students. But he advises that teachers tread carefully when choosing and presenting the material.

“With a little help cutting through the content, I am quite confident high school students would be able to contextualize hip-hop music, including its influence, and what it says about the feelings of the urban Black community in the 80s and 90s,” says Dzik.

He also advocates for using the edited versions of songs in classroom, even if students can figure out the full lyrics, because including uncensored material could be unnecessarily controversial.

And according to Dzik, “Song choice is paramount.” He said would teach a song like Tupac Shakur’s “Changes” by looking directly at the lyrics, which address some of the most discussed issues in the black community in the 1990s, including increases in crack cocaine use, the disproportionate imprisonment of black men, and police brutality. Dzik says other songs like Shakur’s “Hit ‘Em Up,” a diss song that includes death threats against other famous rappers Notorious B.I.G. and Sean “Diddy” Combs, might be better taught by discussing them broadly rather than passing out lyric sheets.

But even if the problem of violent lyrics can be mitigated by strategic teaching, the recent changes to Texas standards reveal that the very relevance of hip-hop in U.S. history is also being questioned.

Ryan, who taught middle school and high school before teaching at George Mason, argues that “hip-hop is undoubtedly linked to American history.”

The numbers certainly provide supporting evidence that the movement has touched millions of Americans. Since 2003, only two albums have sold more than 10 million copies in the United States, and they are both hip-hop records: Outkast’s “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” and Usher’s “Confessions.” Over the past two decades, U.S.-based hip-hop artists have also left their mark globally: Shakur, Eminem, Jay-Z, and the Black Eyed Peas have all sold more than 50 million albums and are hits in countries around the world.

But hip-hop shouldn’t solely be measured in records sold. Its historical importance also rests in both the thoughts it expresses and the lives it changes. In 2006, the Smithsonian Institute began a multi-year initiative to trace hip-hop from its roots in urban black and Latino youth culture to its present expressions. For historians, this is where the movement’s real importance lies; album sales are just a testament to its staying power and broad appeal. And the Smithsonian was by no means to first to chronicle the movement’s history. Hundreds of books written on the hip-hop movement have given birth to the many college-level courses on the subject.

Taking broader lessons from hip-hop may give high school instructors the opportunity to teach valuable lessons about U.S. history, and even the Constitution. One example is the right to expression, which was at the center of the debates over Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center’s assertion that Ice T’s “Cop Killer” increased rates of violence against police in Los Angeles. A discussion about whether a song that advocates violence toward police is protected speech might spark more interest in students than a discussion about yelling “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater.

In addition, there are plenty of primary sources available to educators. Thanks to online video sites, teachers have access to engaging material, like Ice T’s interview with ’90s talk show host Arsenio Hall in which he defends “Cop Killer” and explains what he and other rappers were trying to accomplish with their work.

It’s understandable that only a limited amount of material can be included in history curricula, since most public school years only last about 180 days. And it isn’t surprising that there is a push to include only the most influential items in U.S. history.

Offensiveness, though, is a peculiar standard. Teachers regularly teach material that some may find “offensive.” Be it the violence of war, the subjugation of women, or the ethnic segregation of neighborhoods, teachers find ways to present difficult material. We rely on them to contextualize these subjects and walk softly when necessary. Arguing that they cannot handle hip-hop’s troubling content is little more than a way of skirting the question of the movement’s relevance.

Had the board given the hip-hop a more careful consideration for relevance and not erroneously used “offensiveness” as a way of dodging the question, we might have seen a more inclusive curriculum.

If policymakers can move past the violent and illicit context found in some hip-hop music the way Dzik and others have, then they can start to give all of hip-hop and its rich history a fair chance to be taught in U.S. history classrooms.

In his song “6th Sense,” rapper Common writes, “I start thinking/how many souls hip-hop has affected/how many dead folks this art resurrected/how many nations this culture connected.” The answer to his question is tens if not hundreds of millions are affected by hip-hop, but those numbers pale in comparison to what they could be as long as school boards deny one of the most important cultural movements of the past three decades its place in the history books.

Andrew Bluebond is a staff writer for Campus Progress and a rising senior at Claremont McKenna College.

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