Teaching Labor’s Untold Story: How to Get Labor Back into the Classroom

Source: Rob Linné, Adrienne Andi Sosin, and Leigh Benin, New Labor Forum, Vol. 18 no. 2, Spring 2009
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From the abstract:
In The American Pageant, a widely used U.S. history textbook for high school students, the authors imply that the labor movement is no longer relevant:

Organized labor withered along with the smokestack industries in which it had previously flourished. Some observers concluded that the trade union movement had played out its historic role of empowering workers and ensuring economic justice in the industrial age, and that it would gradually disappear altogether in the new post-industrial era.

This dismissal of the labor movement as a vital part of our culture and society is typical of school discourse across the United States. The de facto curriculum, created by corporate textbook publishers, usually presents labor organization as a historically circumscribed response to unique economic conditions of a distant past. Content analysis studies of commonly used textbooks have found that the role of the labor movement in our history and culture is minimized and decontextualized. At best, what students learn is gleaned from a few school lessons on the Industrial Revolution and the Great Depression, which teach labor unions as historical artifacts with little contemporary relevance. At worst, students assimilate the negative stereotypes about labor that spring from conservative advocacy groups and continue to flood our mass culture.

Fortunately, some educators and unionists have developed promising approaches to teaching about the American labor movement. This article will discuss and analyze three related but distinct avenues for teaching students about labor’s indispensable struggle for economic and social justice: (1) unions reaching out directly to youth; (2) teacher unions becoming active in integrating labor issues into the K-12 schools; and (3) union involvement and participation in education.

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