(Editor’s Note: The Intelligencer spotted the paper, “The History Gap: Collective Memory, Journalism and Public Discourse on Racial Achievement Disparities in Progressive Communities,” by University of Wisconsin-Madison doctoral student Caitlin Cieslik-Miskimen and Prof. Sue Robinson at the November 2016 National Communication Association convention held in Philadelphia, and asked them to tell us more about what why they did this research, what it means, and why it's important.)
The History Gap
By Caitlin Cieslik-Miskimen
The story of the difficulties facing contemporary journalism is well worn: consistent budget cuts, which have led to the elimination of pages and positions, which has led to less column inches devoted to matters of local concern, which has also created less room for in-depth, contextual reporting. But missing in this narrative is a consideration for the impact these cuts have on journalism’s ability to construct and maintain a community’s historical memory. This was the subject of research myself and Dr. Sue Robinson undertook last summer—an unexpected offshoot from a larger project that examined the public discourse about achievement disparities in progressive communities in the United States.
We wanted to find out how people talked about issues related to the achievement gap and how reporting on this topic helped or hindered efforts to close the gap. We spoke with more than 20 community leaders and activists, parents of public schoolchildren, politicians and school superintendents and administrators, and read more than 2,000 media texts and comments spanning the last five years. The reality of life in these cities for minorities—high unemployment and low high school graduation rates—is often the product of cultural, economic and political forces with a much longer history than public discussion acknowledges.
As a media historian, I view the world through a certain lens, one that constantly searches for the appropriate historical analogy, historical parallel, or historical tidbit that helps to better explain a current situation. But increasingly, in the interviews collected for this project and the newspaper articles analyzed, we began to notice that often discussions about how best to solve these issues happen with a certain present-mindedness that obscures history.
Take, for example, the situation in Evanston, a northern Chicago suburb that prides itself on its educational offerings, public commitment to diversity, and progressive ideology. In 2010, the superintendent of the Evanston high school district announced a detracking initiative. This bold move would eliminate freshman honors classes in the humanities, with plans to eliminate all freshman-level honors courses. The goal was to boost the number of minority students in honors and AP classrooms, but the plan was met with strong resistance from the community. As these conversations continued, those on the school board realized there needed to be a larger, more detailed community discussion about race and Evanston’s history. Equally difficult in getting the city to understand the achievement gap as a historical problem was confronting the contradictions in how Evanston residents thought of their city and its history.
Interviews and articles cited Evanston’s progressive stance on education, specifically mentioning as a point of pride the fact that it was the first Northern city to desegregate its schools in September 1967. But missing in the conversation was the acknowledgment that the 1960s was also the genesis for academic performance differences, primarily because the Black population was impacted disproportionately through the closing of community-building institutions.
“This goes way back,” said a school official in an interview. “And you know, nationally, that’s overwhelmingly what happened. We didn’t close the White schools and bus the White kids into [Black] communities. That’s just not the history of this country. And Evanston...the same thing happened there.”
Another top school official added, “And we closed the institutions. We closed the Y. We closed the hospital in the heavily concentrated African American ward, the fifth ward.”
These interviews revealed something missing in community conversations, and in newspaper articles covering these issues: history. The city of Evanston wasn’t alone in its historical blind spot. In the course of an interview with an Ann Arbor school board member who had made addressing and eliminating achievement disparities a central feature of her tenure the subject of history popped up—or, rather, the lack of history.
“[Newspapers have] gotten rid of longtime journalists, or have longtime journalists move on so there’s not necessarily the institutional memory about the district,” she lamented. “And so when the -- you know, they’re going to a meeting and they’re reporting on something, you know, reporters don’t necessarily have the knowledge that, you know, this is a discussion they had 10 years ago, this is a discussion they had six years ago.”
Anyone who wants to effect institutional change is, to a certain extent, beholden to history. All people and institutions are historical products, and whether they are aware of it or not, they make use of historical narratives when making choices about the present and future (Tyack & Cuban, 1997). Historical memory plays a central role in how a community knows itself. It helps a community understand the past, explain the present, and make predictions for the future. Communication is key to the process of remembering, and journalism has often acted as key agent in forming memory. Consequently, the collective memory surrounding education issues at the local level has become thin without the necessary historical context that would be useful in understanding to resolve these disparities.
The achievement gap is “one of the most entrenched challenges of American society,” in part because it represents the confluence of a number of social, cultural and economic forces. The problem is many layered, and any solution to eliminating the achievement gap, must acknowledge the historical elements at play. Walter Lippmann acknowledged the allure of oversimplification in Public Opinion, writing that it “tends to preserve us from all the bewildering effect of trying to see the world steadily and see it whole.” We hope that this study furthers the conversation about the essential role history plays in contemporary conversations by helping see these problems whole, and the issues that arise when journalism neglects to include it. For without access to accurate historical maps, solving these types of issues becomes harder, lengthier, and more frustrating.
Lippmann, W. (1922). Public Opinion.
Tyack, D. and Cuban, L. (1997). Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
About the authors
Caitlin Cieslik-Miskimen is a PhD student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and studies media history. Dr. Sue Robinson is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UW-Madison.