Margot Stern was born in Chicago in 1941. She was five when her family moved to Memphis, and her experience growing up in a Jewish family in the Jim Crow South became a crucible time in her life. As a child she saw the unjust policies of exclusion, like the zoo having only one day a week when Black children were allowed to visit, or the high school cheerleading team allowing only one Jewish student at a time. Both of her parents encouraged the intellectual development of their three children. Margot would be called to a life as an educator, with a special focus on helping students confront injustice in the past and present. As she later wrote, “My parents taught me the meaning of social justice, the importance of political participation, and the value of faith. My real education was family-centered, and the lessons learned there nurtured my development and gave meaning to my life’s work, teaching.”
Margot studied at the University of Illinois. She met her future husband, Jerry Strom while waiting in line to register for classes. When she began her teaching career in Illinois, she encountered what seemed like a conspiracy of silence that denied students a true understanding of the complex history of how society had evolved. Nothing was taught about the Holocaust. She recalled how, when she was a student In the South, the difficult history of the Civil War was distorted by learning about Confederate victories but glossing over the outcome of the war. The silence about historical injustices amounted to a teaching approach where “‘Bad history’ was best forgotten.”
Later, as a teacher in Brookline, Massachusetts, Margot took action to break the conspiracy of silence in how history was taught. She and a fellow teacher developed a curriculum project called Facing History & Ourselves. The concept was to offer a curriculum to challenge teachers and students to confront “bad history” and to stand up to bigotry and hatred.
The curriculum was tested in Margot’s classroom to start. Efforts to receive federal funding to expand the reach of the curriculum were initially thwarted by right-wing groups. One outside evaluator faulted the program for “failing to provide the view of the Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.” The curriculum was finally funded in 1989 through the persistence of Congressional supporters.
Thanks to the the influx of funding, the curriculum grew its reach and has been adopted by teachers in every state and over 100 countries. The website www.facinghistory.org continues to broaden access to the curriculum.
A unique feature of the curriculum is that it has moved history from one of telling to one of self-discovery. Students learn to think deeply about our society and the choices we make that affect that society. Students are no longer bystanders. They have become voices against the conspiracy of silence.
Just imagine what it will take to sustain Margot Stern Strom’s efforts against the conspiracy of silence. Margot died in March 2023, in an era when the influence of those who want to return to silence about uncomfortable history has been growing significantly within our political system. Across the U.S., states are entertaining or setting policies to avoid or whitewash the teaching of “bad history.” In early 2022, researcher Jeffrey Sachs reported that 35 states introduced bills to limit “what schools can teach with regard to race, American history, politics, sexual orientation and gender identity,” and that number continues to grow. Will we neglect the lessons we need to learn from history?
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“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana (Philosopher)
This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.