As we careen toward the 2020 election, I cannot help imagining how this moment, and the five years leading up to it, will be conveyed in history textbooks. I want to believe the political venom will dissipate and the truth will prevail. But that’s probably naïve — especially considering that history and how we teach it are embedded in our political cultural wars.
Just last week, President Donald Trump threatened to cut federal education funding to the state of California if schools there are found to include in the teaching of U.S. history the New York Times’ 1619 Project, its much debated exploration of chattel slavery and its deep and lasting effects.
That the teaching of this national disgrace is controversial is itself disgraceful; it is also unsurprising. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas has proposed the “Saving American History Act of 2020,” which could more appropriately be called the “Saving America’s Cover-up and Delusions of Purity Act.”
Teaching a torrent of blood and tears
I do not know if President Trump or Sen. Cotton are merely staging political stunts in an election year. Or whether either believes it acceptable to teach our children anything at all about the grotesque institution of slavery or the enslaved Africans who perished by the thousands or those who somehow survived for generations of misery and agony until, after nearly 250 years, their descendants were given legal freedom and then denied civil or human rights for the next century and beyond. I don’t know precisely what the objections are to ensuring that our children understand this about their country’s history.
Is it embarrassment? Are they afraid that our children won’t adopt the unquestioning patriotism they seem to think is the only way to express a love for this country? Or do they think our children can’t bear to know the crimes and hypocrisies? Or is it fear of losing the delusion of white supremacy that includes the bizarre belief in moral superiority?
It is not unreasonable to argue that we ought to be reasonable burdening our children with the torrent of blood and tears that darken the timeline of our country. How much is too much and at what age should children know how much of the ugliness? These are fair questions for parents and educators and the lawmakers who ultimately oversee the public education system.
About 20 years ago I was recruited to teach the American Social History Project curriculum which introduced high school students to social history — studying the past from the perspective of workers, soldiers, immigrants, indigenous people, enslaved people and other disenfranchised Americans. Using the works of Herbert Gutman, Stephen Brier, Howard Zinn and other social historians, we helped students understand that inhumanity and injustice are often many-faceted and understanding the complexities can be liberating.
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No one in Washington or anywhere else raised a fuss about any of it and most of the students found this approach engaging and empowering. They came to see themselves and their lives as more meaningful once they stopped perceiving history as the actions of powerful white men. But not all the kids were enthusiastic.
I remember one young man who complained that it was all too depressing. Why couldn’t we learn more of the great things about our country? He’d had squalor and misery enough growing up in perils and poverty. He wanted to be uplifted at school. He wanted to learn about all the great accomplishments of our country. Something on which to hang his own personal hopes.
Pride in USA along with ugly realities
I found his plea compelling and became a better teacher for it — committed to providing something positive and aspirational amid all the ugly realities we were studying.
Ever since then I’ve embraced that impulse as much as I’ve tried to embrace the truth. Our children can feel proud of our country even as they discover the worst of our past. The teaching of slavery or any other American atrocity should never be an attack on children of any ethnicity or gender.
The best thing about children is that they will one day grow up and take our place. That is humanity’s greatest hope — and I cannot imagine a moment in history that better illustrated that.
But we have to arm them with truth and the courage to always confront it.
Kids know when they are being deceived. They sense the cowardice of adults who won’t themselves confront difficult truths. When we lie to and conceal from children we lose their respect and we cease to be relevant. That’s when kids sleep through U.S. History and cheat to pass a class unworthy of their attention.
The winners (of wars and elections) may — as the now tired hypothesis goes — get to write the history books. But “saving history” by covering up the uncomfortable parts is the desperate act of losers.
Larry Strauss has been a high school English teacher in South Los Angeles since 1992. He is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and the author of more than a dozen books, most recently “Students First and Other Lies: Straight Talk From a Veteran Teacher” and, on audio, “Now’s the Time” (narrated by Kim Fields). Follow him on Twitter: @LarryStrauss