Letter to the editor: Response to blackface articles

Dear Editor:
In my nearly 33 years of teaching at Whitworth, I have never written in response to an article in The Whitworthian, believing that as a student publication, it should be about student concerns without unsolicited faculty commentary. That being said, I find myself so troubled by the apparent perception of my department on this campus that I am breaking with that custom. While I do not want to overreact to some of what appeared in the last issue of the Whitworthian, I would neither be a responsible member of the Whitworth community, nor a good steward of the discipline to which I have committed my professional life if I did not respond to the allegations about the study of history that appeared in the last issue. From this historian’s perspective what is most instructive (and disturbing) is that we, as a campus community, don’t even know what we don’t know—and this pertains as much to some of the responses to the blackface incident as to the incident itself. We Whitworth historians can certainly strive to do better than we have done over the past 30 years, but sections from the last issue of The Whitworthian demonstrated a severe lack of awareness of my discipline as a method of intellectual inquiry as well as how history has been taught at Whitworth.

In her contribution to the issue, Editor-in-Chief, Ms. Bresee asked the rhetorical question, “How can college students in 2015 not know the history of blackface?” This is a question we must ponder, but it begs the central underlying question: How can college students in 2015 not know the history of their own country? The statement by Mr. Aguilar, quoted by Ms. Haman in another commentary, seemed to provide the answer: “The incident that happened earlier this month we can see as a failure on our society’s educational system, [sic] part by not having it in our core curriculum especially in history courses.”

Mr. Aguilar must be reflecting on history courses he took before coming to Whitworth, because for more than three decades we have been offering courses and content within courses that address racial, ethnic, gender, cultural and class issues. We hope to be able to offer even more in the near future, but there has been no ignorance of these important aspects of diversity in our classes.

I am not sure if the reference to “core curriculum” refers specifically to our three course undergraduate core program or to our core general education requirements. It has been my privilege over the years to have served at one time or another in all three of the regular undergraduate core courses as well as the graduate core course. And while I personally have learned a great deal while teaching with my talented and trusted colleagues, none of the core courses can be construed as history courses because there is much more to my discipline than just relating facts from the past, which all the core classes do. In fact, I would argue that practically every course in every department teaches something from the past, but that does not mean, by any stretch of the imagination, that they are history courses. They are not. And neither are our core classes.

In her thoughtful editorial Ms. Carter wrote that she was “appalled at the fact that at [sic] a university that prides itself on diversity in its student population, curriculum and faculty, allowed these students to get to this point without knowing the strong connotations behind their costumes. On a greater level, I am uncomfortable with the fact that for a decent number of Whitworth students, this incident was the first time that they heard about blackface and its history.”

I share her frustration, but let us not forget that Whitworth students are not required to take even one history course to graduate. A number of history courses meet various general education requirements, but courses in many other departments meet the same requirements. Consequently, the vast majority of students graduate without ever taking a history class.

One might argue that students could take a history course as general university elective, and yes, some do. But most do not. For many, the decision to double or triple major, limits room for elective classes—most of those elective credits being lost to complete the second or third major. But in that loss, the greater purpose of pursuing a Christian, liberal arts education is shattered. I am deeply sympathetic to the concerns students have about the cost of attending Whitworth and of finding a suitable job after graduation. But sacrificing the opportunity to explore areas of personal interest outside the major(s) based on the mistaken notion that a second or even a third major will make students more employable after graduation, conforming to the nearly universal mindset that general education requirements are not to be valued but “gotten out of the way,” and placing such a tremendous overemphasis on grades, guarantee that the educational blind spots observed by Ms. Bresee and Ms. Carter are perpetuated year after year.

Ms. Carter concluded her editorial by suggesting that “The conversation about race and racial history here at Whitworth should have been started a long time ago, particularly given our nation’s climate on that subject.” My colleagues and I in the history department would be the first to argue that we still have a long way to go before we can say that we are where we should be with regard to the complexity and richness of our past, but I would encourage a somewhat closer look at what our department has been consistently offering to the Whitworth community before making assessments of our perceived failures.

Arlin Migliazzo, Professor of History

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