Educator Steve Cohen: We and They

Steve Cohen, Senior Lecturer at Tufts University’s Department of Education, describes how Facing History and Ourselves’ curriculum enables students to examine and explore the labels that humans place on one another.

Transcript (Text)

Educator Steve Cohen: We and They

One of the ways students and the rest of us think about the world is by dividing it into categories. Two of the most interesting and long-lasting categories are 'we' and 'they.' We use those categories all the time—people who are like us, people who are not like us, people who live in our state, people who don't live in our state, people who root for our team, people who don't root for our team.

And often, we have pictures of those who are similar to us and those who are different to us. And these pictures in our minds are really something that sociologists call stereotypes. We make up a picture of someone and then expect that all people in that category conform to those same ideas.

And one of the things we try to do with the Facing History curriculum is to look carefully at our use of words. And we try to define words like prejudice and discrimination. Those two words, for instance, are often seen as negatives.

Prejudice is a bad thing. Discrimination is a bad thing. And yet, when you think about it, discrimination is the ability to tell differences. We want students to be able to tell differences. So what's bad about discrimination?

Well, there's nothing wrong with discrimination itself. But we know that racial discrimination, discriminating against someone because of their racial group, is something that one should be very worried about.

So making students understand the power of words is something that is very important before going through the rest of this curriculum. We spend a lot of time working on the power of words and the power of those categories. Some of the words are always seen as good words. For instance, the word equality.

We often use a short story by Kurt Vonnegut called "Harrison Bergeron." In that short story, the real question is, what does equality mean? Does equality mean that everyone is exactly the same? Does equality mean treating everyone the same? Does equality mean that everyone gets what everyone needs?

What does that mean? There's not a clear answer. It's one that really needs to be thought about. And that's one of the things we try to do in the curriculum—get students to think about words that they often use but don't define very carefully.

While the students don't do that, often the rest of us don't either. So when teaching Facing History as teachers, it often forces us to really think about what do we mean?

We go from this individual look at words to words that also refer to historical phenomena, like nationalism. And so looking at questions of, what is nationalism? What is patriotism? What does it mean to belong to a nation? What does it mean to believe in a nation? What does it mean to argue that your nation is better than another?

How do you define that? What's the basis on which you make these judgments? Those are the kinds of questions that we need to look at before we go into the history sections of the curriculum. And the history sections are the ones that are coming up next.

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