Ageism Unmasked: A New Book Tackles Age Bias
By Sharron Hannon
Everything you know about aging is wrong. So says Tracey Gendron, a gerontologist and author of Ageism Unmasked, a timely new book that aims to disrupt our unconscious prejudices and misconceptions about aging.
Gendron, who chairs the Department of Gerontology at Virginia Commonwealth University, has spent more than two decades doing scholarly research on the roots and impact of ageism. Yet it was a personal epiphany – realizing that she herself had fallen victim to the pervasive cultural narrative about growing old – that caused her to write the book. In doing so, she draws not only on her academic background, but on her personal reflections on aging and experiences with family members to help readers recognize that ageism has significant repercussions for all of us at all stages of our lives.
Dr. Gendron will present a virtual class for OLLI on her new book, Ageism Unmasked, on Feb. 17 at noon. Dr. Gendron is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Gerontology and the Executive Director of the Virginia Center on Aging at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Like other “-isms” (racism, sexism, ableism), ageism involves an “us” versus “them” dynamic fed by unexamined negative attitudes that influence our behaviors and can place us on a “slippery slope to discrimination.” It starts with stereotypes about members of a specific group (in this case, old people), which leads to prejudicial judgements, which then can play out as unjustified behaviors (exclusion, marginalization).
Gendron critically examines where these negative attitudes originate; from childhood bedtime stories that feature scary or feeble older characters to the aggressive marketing of products that claim to stave off aging, leading to a frantic quest to stay young at all costs. Recognizing these roots of bias and rejecting them, Gendron instead urges us to consider “elderhood” as a time of renewed meaning and purpose. “Old,” she writes, should not be an insulting pejorative. We need to see age and embrace it.
Gendron views aging as a universal and lifelong process of development that ultimately leads us to becoming our unique individual selves. She offers convincing arguments for the personal and societal benefits of adopting this outlook and provides practical strategies to help readers navigate the challenges and opportunities of aging. In doing so, she joins a cadre of authors – among them Ashton Applewhite (This Chair Rocks) and Bill Thomas (Aging Magnificently) – leading a welcome movement to dismantle ageism and undo its destructive effects on all our lives.
Sharron Hannon retired as UGA director of public relations for academic affairs. She has also been a freelance writer for both local and national publications.
Introduction: America Revised
History has been making headlines lately – the teaching of history, that is. According to The New York Times, 36 states have introduced 137 bills seeking to restrict teaching, mainly on race but also on gender and history. That’s up from 22 states and 54 bills last year, according to PEN America, a free speech group.
As a Boomer, with a terrible memory, I can’t remember exactly what I learned in high school history and social studies, other than a lot of dates. As I grew up in a segregated southern community, I’m pretty sure I didn’t learn much black history (George Washington Carver and the peanut?). As for women’s history, I did learn the date women got the vote, although not how difficult and painful the struggle was.
In my wondering and Googling, I came across a 1979 book about American history textbooks. “America Revised,” by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian Frances Fitzgerald. It seems relevant to the discussions the country is having today. I asked Arthur “Andy” Horne, the former dean of the UGA college of education, if he would read and review it for Boom. Betsy Bean, publisher
What were baby boomers taught about American history?
By Andy Horne
America Revised by Frances Fitzgerald. 1979.
Frances Fitzgerald’s book, while more than four decades old, could have been written today. The topics she covers in her book are every bit as timely and relevant today as they were then, including how race is being examined in the classroom, the challenges of conservative versus progressive approaches to schooling, and the “ownership” of the educational process by educators or policy makers.
Fitzgerald begins the book with a detailed history of history textbooks for middle and high school students. In her research she found that there have been surprisingly few history books in our national educational past. Until the mid-1800s many didn’t consider that our nation had a history – it was being lived, not taught. By the late 1800s, there were a number of attempts at summarizing the past, Fitzgerald writes, generally with an emphasis on describing what made America, America.
The focus of these 19th century textbooks was upon our breaking away from the European past, initiating a new nation with different ideals than other countries, and with descriptions of those who represented the leadership of the new nation – primarily white men. There was little emphasis on the contributions of women or people of color, and little challenge to the economic structure that prevailed, with economic decision-making residing with white men.
By the beginning of the 1900s, textbook publishing and the emphasis on teaching history became more prevalent. Those who wrote school history texts often maintained a strong market presence for years, including several series that continued to be revised and sold for decades to states and school districts. The book series American History by David Muzzey continued being used for 65 years, and Magruder’s American Government has been published and taught since 1917. With the rapidly changing times of the 20th century, though, publishers would find it necessary to revise and update these history texts more frequently, resulting in children of the same generation learning very different histories of the country, depending upon what the latest emphasis was for publishers.
For instance, during and following wars, Fitzgerald found that textbooks often had a strong emphasis on patriotism and the role America played in world leadership. In the 1920s, texts had titles like The History of the United States; in the 1940s, titles often included more connectedness with our history, such as The Story of Our Republic, implying that students should identify with their nation and take ownership of its history, emphasizing American citizenship and pride, while often glossing over or not discussing aspects that were problematic for many, including the abuses of slavery.
History textbooks for Boomers
Following the second World War and the rise of Soviet-style communism, American history books in the 1950s had a strong emphasis on democracy – with communism being presented as the opposite of our government and a type of government to be feared. This led to increased attention in history books to capitalism, industry, business leadership, and a greater emphasis on the importance – and fragility – of individual freedom. Fitzgerald describes the 1950s textbooks more as encyclopedias with a lot of facts but very little attention to describing what was really changing in the world, or the relationship of various important events to each other.
The 1960s history texts had the most rewriting of history that has occurred in American schools. Civil rights developments, international crises, including the Cuban missile crisis, the assassination of Kennedy, urban blight and rioting in American cities, and numerous other tumultuous circumstances caused Fitzgerald to describe American history as a “gnarled experience” involving problems, turmoil, and conflict at the international, national, regional, and state levels.
The second section of America Revisited is titled “Continuity and Change: Breakdowns, Hairpin Turns, and Roads Not Taken.” While an emphasis of the entire book is on “what the purpose of education is, and what role does a knowledge of our history play in achieving that role” this section discusses the diverging and often opposing views of the role of education. For example, Fitzgerald examines the emerging multiracial, multicultural aspects of our nation. What is education’s role in addressing race and the development of fair and equal opportunities? How have Native Americans been presented in our texts? African Americans? Asians? Others? She asks who is to determine how the material is to be presented? Today, it’s that question that is causing so much turmoil because it’s being answered differently in every state and locality as they are the ones that decide what textbooks to purchase.
Another emphasis in the second section includes an examination of the role of economics on our lives. Poverty in America has a long history – Fitzgerald asks how our political, business, and social decisions influenced poverty? In the books she examined, she found that American history textbooks focused on individualism rather than communitarianism, or the belief that a person’s identity and personality are largely molded by community relationships.
I stated earlier that this book could be written today. Fitzgerald describes many of the critical circumstances facing education today. What is the role of education? To create good citizens? If so, how much math is necessary? To create great STEM students? If so, is there a moral mandate that our scientists be ethical and responsible to the common weal? Is there a common weal today? Is it education’s responsibility to promote public good, or is that the responsibility of the individual – to do good and therefore the public will benefit? What if they don’t? Is education to create job skills? Or are job skills – reading, writing, math – an outcome of educating people of character and commitment and citizenship? Should educators focus on America’s troubled history or generate pride and patriotism through focusing on accomplishments and successes?
We are witnessing in our nation today the same critical incidents Fitzgerald described when reviewing American history books in the mid-1970s. At times, she wrote, liberal ideas have prevailed, in other times conservative ideals held greater influence. Today, colleges of education attempt to prepare teachers to meet the demands of their states and districts, and the needs of their students and families, and yet we as a nation still struggle with attempting to identify and define what we want in our educational programs. Perhaps in a diverse nation such as ours, our history books cannot meet all the demands placed upon them and that is the nature of our nation in this time in our history.
Editor’s Note: Nothing makes this clearer than a 2020 article in The New York Times that compares the differences in history textbooks in California and Texas.
Arthur “Andy” Horne, is Dean Emeritus and Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus at the University of Georgia. Dr. Horne has worked in the areas of violence reduction and bullying prevention for several decades. He was a member of the Centers for Disease Control Multisite Violence Prevention Project, a 5-year project examining the effects of intervention programs on reducing aggression and violence in schools and families. He has authored, co-authored, and edited books and articles on delinquency and bullying and directed the Safe and Welcoming Schools program with an emphasis on positive approaches to creating classrooms of respect and dignity.