Barack Obama’s Television and the Teaching of Identity

Not too long ago a controversy emerged in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where the city council approved Howard Zinn’s socialist history book A People’s History of the United States for usage in Philadelphia public schools. I don’t know how school leaders in Philadelphia have reacted to the possibility of using Zinn in the classroom, but the initial Washington Post article was littered with comments ranging from an outright declaration to hang Zinn as a traitor (which is tough to do because Zinn died in 2010) to the belief that socialists are only interested in teaching “white guilt” to students.

Well, if the shoe fits your left foot, you may as well put the other on your right. News about a controversial classroom textbook is now coming out of Dupo, Illinois, where a biography of Barack Obama being used in fourth grade classrooms at a local elementary school purports to argue that white people would never vote for a black president.

Here’s an excerpt from the book:


The book is written by Jane Sutcliffe, a Rhode Island children’s book author. Here is her Amazon page and personal website. Ironically enough, the book is actually approved as a supplement to the school’s Common Core curriculum (an irony not lost on the author of this post).

Sutclifffe has written children’s books on a wide range of topics, including Abigail Adams, John Deere, and Milton Hershey. Just for fun, I decided to peruse her biography of Ronald Reagan to compare and contrast the use of language in both books. Here’s an excerpt from her work on Reagan:

Ronald Reagan And Justice For All

Reagan’s aversion to racial discrimination during his youth and Obama’s drug usage are both true. But look at how Sutcliffe interprets the childhoods of these men. According to Sutcliffe, “Dutch” is raised in a wholesome environment around loving family members, friends at school, and his teammates on the football team. “Dutch” is taught from an early age the difference between right and wrong, and never seems to have any issues with discovering his personal identity. “Barry,” on the other hand, is raised by the television. “Barry’s” family is removed from the narrative as he turns to the television to figure out what it’s like to be black. Sutcliffe doesn’t mention if “Barry” though about what it meant to be “white,” which suggests to me that Sutcliffe views Obama as a black person, not a biracial person. “Barry’s” family, friends, and acquaintances are stripped of their agency in helping to shape his identity. Thanks to the television, he can’t distinguish between right and wrong; “Barry’s” later drug usage stems from an identity crisis and a belief that doing drugs and drinking may constitute “what it means to be black.”

I find it sad that in many regards this book isn’t nearly as bad as the “Obama’s a Kenyan-Muslim-Socialist” tripe that so often distracts us from assessing actual criticisms of the President’s time in office, including the indefinite detention for alleged terrorists (including those at Guantanamo Bay) without review, his military intervention in Libya two years ago (and recent efforts to unilaterally attack Syria), his support for drone strikes, or the exorbitant spending increases on the “War on Drugs” that have had little to no positive effect on the drug trade or drug usage in the United States (Obama should know). Sutcliffe’s book isn’t bad because it paints Obama in a less than flattering light. We’re all biased, and it doesn’t really surprise me that “Dutch” comes out looking much better than “Barry.” This book is bad because it’s blatantly racist and wholly inappropriate for a fourth grade classroom. The fact that it acted as a supplement to the Common Core curriculum is also ridiculous.

I ask you, dear readers, to consider these questions:

1. Educators generally agree that history instruction in elementary schools benefits from extensive analysis of “great individuals” through biography. When looking at these individuals, however, teachers must necessarily simplify the narrative and focus on certain characteristics and events in a person’s life. Is it appropriate to talk about drinking and drug usage in an elementary classroom, even if the person in discussion did engage in those behaviors? Likewise, would it be appropriate to talk about the Bill Clinton sex scandal or George W. Bush’s questionable military record in that setting?

2. Should elementary teachers focus wholly on the good aspects of an individual? Is there room to talk about a person’s mistakes and shortcomings?

3. Why aren’t more historians following James Swanson’s example and modifying their books for younger audiences? Swanson created versions of his books on the pursuit of John Wilkes Booth and the funerals of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis for middle school and high school audiences. I think this effort is admirable and I wonder why more don’t aim to create a version of their publications for k-12 audiences, especially since historians seem to be perpetually concerned with disseminating their work to a broader audience.

4. How do we add complexity and critical historical thinking into the elementary classroom?


5 thoughts on “Barack Obama’s Television and the Teaching of Identity

  1. Lots of good questions, Nick. In general, I think history outside of the academy is too simplified. Museums, mentions in the everyday media, and children’s books take out the human element and perpetuate the idea that “history is boring” and that “only ‘great [White] men’ make History.” I know too that things have to be “adjusted” some for the younger ones. I think that a huge part of the problem is that we assume kids can’t handle it. I’d suspect that the majority of middle school children could well read and interpret a college into textbook just fine. The problem is educators underestimate their abilities and don’t (in general) want them to know what really happened. I think for elementary children some things, such as someone who did drugs or something, could be discussed maybe “as a mistake the person made.” It could be framed slightly differently. But I remember the DARE programs and celebrations of “drug free week” (or whatever it was called) starting in 1st grade. It may not be “that big of a deal” to children. This is where some psychology/human growth and learning theories would be helpful. I know some about that. In general from the ones I know, the emphasis is on that children are less able to critically think than adults. Sorry for all the random thoughts. Overall, I think if society worried less about what’s too much for children things would be better.

    1. Hi Andrew,

      I agree 100% that psychology and learning theory can help greatly in shaping a teacher’s approach to dealing with complex topics in the classroom. I too would agree that educators often underestimate the abilities of their students and their interest in talking about controversial issues. When I did my student teaching I often felt that the materials handed to me (especially on the assessment side) focused on the factual and trivial. While I agree that many middle and high school students can read and interpret college intro material, I still think modified books like Swanson’s can introduce students to historical thinking, interpretation, and analysis. I’d also suspect that the smaller, shorter books would be less expensive for school districts. Ultimately, however, if I were teaching I don’t know if I’d rely on one book to use throughout the semester. I like the idea of scanning book chapters and articles with many different perspectives instead.

      I suppose my stance would be that topics like Obama’s drug usage are fair game for discussion in most elementary classrooms, but teachers have to analyze the psychology/learning theories aspect you correctly refer to in creating activities and fostering discussion about these topics. Whittling down Obama’s drug and alcohol usage to black identity is offensive. We can do better than that.

      1. All of these questions and perspectives show all the more how important it is for teachers to have small classes, high-quality education themselves, and control over what they teach (at least in most cases, lol!) in order to best teach and individualize instruction.

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