Culture

New High-School Physics Curriculum Includes Lessons on White Privilege

A Seattle science teacher was concerned students “weren’t learning about their own privilege.”

A high-school physics teacher has developed his own six-day curriculum that he uses to teach about institutional racism, privilege, and social justice as part of his seniors’ physics classes.

The teacher, Moses Rifkin of University Prep in Seattle, has also been promoting the lesson plan to other high-school science instructors. 

John Burk, a math and physics teacher from Delaware, said that he learned about the curriculum when he met Rifkin at a People of Color Conference and gushed that it “brilliantly brings lessons about social justice, privilege, and institutional racism into the physics classroom.” 

In fact, Burk loved the unit so much that he had Rifkin write a guest post about it in his (Burk’s) own blog, in which Rifkin explained: 

“I was jealous of my colleagues in English and History who got to talk every day in class about society and how it worked and how to be moral and caring and kind, whereas those conversations with students only happened for me outside the classroom.”

“That I was teaching at a private school only made matters worse: my students weren’t learning about their own privilege (academic and, in most cases, economic and racial),” Rifkin continued. 

During one section of the course, Rifkin’s post explains, students study black physicists. For a homework assignment, he instructs students to learn about a pre-1950s black physicist and also a modern black physicist.

Rifkin explains that he expects finding information about black physicists will be tough, which “points to the big question of this project: why is this? Why, percentage-wise, are there dramatically fewer black physicists than black Americans?”

“Is it because black students are not interested in physics? Not capable? Something else?” the homework assignment asks. 

Yes — the physicist has to be black specifically and the assignment “will not cover any other minority groups that may not be as involved in science.”

“We do this because it’s a particularly illustrative example; we aren’t going to directly address other scientific minorities, and there are many: women, other races, the economically disadvantaged, the physically disabled, etc.” the course description clarifies. 

But he assures us that this is “only because of time restrictions, not because of a lack of relevance.”

It is not clear why — even if social justice was a relevant topic to be discussed in a high-school science class — studies of other groups he himself calls “scientific minorities” would not be acceptable subjects just because they were not black specifically.

Another homework assignment for the class as part of this unit is to read Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, according to a post on Missouri Education Watchdog. Rifkin also recommends listening to Macklemore. 

— Katherine Timpf is a reporter for National Review Online.

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