Attending to Our Histories

Submitted By:
Jeff Baird, Brooklyn Prospect, Brooklyn, NY

Institutional Historical Acknowledgement: What Does It Hurt to Embrace the Past? by Michelle A. Purdy
Teachers College Record, Volume 125, Number 7-8, "Minding the Gap in Education Discourse: Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging in Independent and International Schools", August 2023

In her article, “Institutional Historical Acknowledgement: What Does It Hurt to Embrace the Past?”, Michelle A. Purdy draws upon her experience writing – and speaking with students and educators about – her 2018 book Transforming the Elite: Black Students and the Desegregation of Private Schools. Motivated by her own experience at an independent school in the American South as well as questions she had about the Black students who’d come before her, Purdy’s research has deeply illuminated the relationship between southern independent schools and their histories, and has signified the importance of all independent schools advancing a “deeper, fuller understanding of access and opportunity in a society built on inequality.” In particular, Purdy references some sources of inspiration, as several higher education institutions have begun attending to their histories in more formalized ways, alongside some independent schools and education nonprofits. Much of her book focuses on the “fearless firsts” to attend the Westminster Schools in Atlanta, beginning in the 1967-68 school year, and the ways in which they served as courageous change agents in navigating schools that had not been built with them in mind. In an ongoing way, Purdy powerfully posits the necessity of independent schools being willing to “embrace the hurt” and examine their pasts as part of a commitment to recognizing how our prior histories have informed the policies, practices, cultures, and ways of “being, understanding, and maneuvering” that shaped us. We then can consider the remnants they’ve left and the implications they have for our equity efforts in the present moment and years ahead.

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