Tuesday, October 14, 2003

"I recently received a letter from a student" 

From a history professor at St. Cloud State. I am the person who went between this professor and the professor who gave the assignment discussed. I have read the letter-assignment and can verify its contents. In the interest of all concerned, names are not included.
I recently received a letter from a student. I did not recognize the name on the envelope but she indicated that she had been in my Western Civilization class several years ago and that she was writing to fulfill a requirement in a SCSU course. The letter came with an insert from the instructor, a faculty, that this letter was an assignment in his course and that the reader was welcome to respond to the letter by contacting him.

In the letter the student wrote that she just learned, from the required readings in the class, about all the atrocities Christopher Columbus committed against the indigenous people. She protested why she had never been taught of Columbus� crimes in high school and wondered why Columbus Day was celebrated. I was genuinely puzzled to receive this letter because my Western Civilization class she apparently had with me did not cover the period of European expansion at all. One of my colleagues, who knew the instructor personally, offered to inquire whether there were any criteria given for choosing to whom these letters would be sent and, in addition, whether the student would receive the same grade if she had written that, after taking the course, she had decided Columbus Day was worth celebrating.

The instructor replied to my colleague that the students had been told to write letters to their former high school teachers and that it was not his intent to have a letter addressed to any faculty on campus. He further explained that since students were already familiar with the mainstream version of the Columbus story his objective was to expose students to alternative perspectives on the topic so they could develop a well-rounded viewpoint.

I am not sure whether I am happy to learn that I was not an intended target of this assignment. I do not want to discuss any specific viewpoints expressed in the letter. I simply wonder what we professors have to achieve here by having students write these letters to their former teachers, in which the high school teachers are condemned for willingly distorting historical facts or intentionally withholding truth from students. The instructor may have determined that our students need extra stimulation, such as a letter writing activity, for better learning experience. But what is the wisdom of requiring students to send out these letters to their former teachers criticizing them for having failed to teach a specific, admittedly �alternative,� viewpoint? I am sure that students were free to develop their own opinion on the issue but, after all, they were required in class to read about only one viewpoint whereas they were encouraged to read outside the classroom any sources that provide different perspectives. Students may learn the skill of writing letters of protest from this assignment, but what about the teachers who suddenly receive letters from their former students and find themselves blamed for not having taught in the past in their history courses (how many years ago�it is everyone�s guess) the specific viewpoint that this instructor decided to teach? Are we expecting them to engage in a debate with their former students, or the instructor? Are we trying in any way to enlighten and educate high school teachers? If so, wouldn�t it be a little bit arrogant on our part?