voice for democracy

How should we teach our history? – Cape Cod Times

Schools here on Cape Cod will have to face an issue sweeping the country: From whose point of view should American history be taught?  Whose story is it, and who gets to tell it?
Those of us who’ve taught history think about these questions all the time.   Here’s the thing:  If what and how we teach become political footballs, truth will become a football, too.  That’s why scholars — people familiar with the original documents, deeds and speeches of the times — need to be the arbiters of what happened in the past.
There are problems with any approach.  Our history is driven by a series of arguments from every age.  How do we balance the power of the federal government with the states?  What role should faith have in driving public policy, and whose, and which one?  What should America’s role be in the community of nations?  Does government have any responsibility to protect us from exploitation and poverty?  Who gets to be an American?
We’ve disagreed about all these things in every era.  Whose words and documents do we include?  Whose do we leave out?  Who we are and how we see things determine the sense we make from the things we find.  Academia works best when the arguments are robust and unrestrained.
It’s easy to define history as simply “what happened.”  But look at all that actually happens every day.  That’s why teachers and professors have to study long and hard before they appear at the front of a classroom.  They need years to get all the information — and still more years to learn how to filter it — and still more to learn how to teach it.
And we’re not talking about earning the big bucks here.  You know that.  COVID has made schooling more difficult for students and teachers alike. Parents are coming in hot, and history teaching is beginning to resemble being an airline steward, wondering where the next insult (or worse) is coming from.
Critical Race Theory is not an actual curriculum — and it’s pretty much a graduate level college option for understanding our history.  Despite the horrendous sacrifices of the Civil War, have Blacks and minorities continued to face disadvantages so imbedded in American life that many of us white folks don’t even see them?  And if that’s so, what does that make us?
It’s a conversation we need be having, parents included.  But what is the proper educational level to begin having it?
When I was a boy, we taught school children from a heroic model of history.  History was driven by the deeds and ideas of a few extraordinary people.  Queen Elizabeth, Washington, Alexander the Great had qualities of courage, intelligence and persistence that allowed them to shape the world.  So there were moral lessons to be learned from idolizing them.  History was a series of inspirational role models mixed with cautionary tales.
We’d learn later on that Jefferson held slaves, to take an example, and that Washington did, too.  The ancient savants knew the world was round, and the distance around it — way before Columbus.  Sugarcoat it for the little ones if moral instruction is more important than history is, but then you risk making cynics of them when you finally tell them the truth.
Here’s what we must tell the kids: You can easily get turned off and negative about your country — or about human beings in general.  But if there are villains, there are also heroes, people to admire. Each new generation must decide for itself what to be proud of, what to defend and continue, what to be ashamed of, and what to abolish or reform.  The sooner you have thought this through for yourself — even if you change your mind about some things later on — the sooner you will take your part, not just studying history but making it.  What kind of history shall you make?
Terry McAuliffe said, on his way to losing the governorship of Virginia, that parents shouldn’t get to dictate curriculum; schools should do that. He was right. Today, we are so polarized politically, our views of reality so divergent — people who haven’t done the academic work shouldn’t make the call.  If some of us worry there’s too much bias in the schools now, imagine if curriculum was driven by politics outright.  Our history would change from state to state, from county to county.
There are historical arguments America has always had.  They define us in each generation.  Struggling for balance is the work of democracy.  God help us if the pendulum is stopped from swinging.  We won’t be America anymore.
Lawrence Brown is a columnist for the Cape Cod Times.  Email him at [email protected]

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