Warning to my readers, this is a polemic.
I’m not sure when state legislators around the country and particularly in my home state of South Carolina started thinking they were curriculum experts. Despite the fact that few of them have any training or experience in teaching kids, they think they know what public school pupils should learn and when and how they should learn it. So far, they’ve pretty much left math and science alone (except for their superior expertise in matters of public health, like masks and vaccines). But when it comes to teaching history, they know which version they prefer. The whitewashed, sanitized virtue of America’s greatness, without any reference to uncomfortable truth, like, say, slavery, extinction of native peoples, Vietnam….
Their argument is not historical but psychological. Knowing the facts of American history (for instance, that it is always has been governed primarily by and for old rich white men) might make children feel guilty. Or ashamed of being white, or male, or from a wealthy family. That’s the construction they put on what academics have been calling critical race theory. In the war of labels, let’s begin by calling it what it is, inclusive history. Here are some South Carolina people I would like to include. Eliza Pinckney and the development of indigo as a major cash crop by a woman. The Stono Rebellion (look it up) and the Denmark Vesey plot (look that up too). The Cherokee and the Trail of Tears. The abolitionist Grimke sisters, daughters of a South Carolina judge and slave owner. The capture of a Southern navy ship by Robert Smalls and his fellow enslaved companions, who safely delivered it to the blockading Union navy in Charleston harbor. Jim Crow laws and underfunding of public education in areas where African Americans were in the majority that limited the ability of former slaves to become full members of society. Organized and often violent efforts to prevent these same formerly enslaved workers from leaving Southern states for opportunities in the North. The long battle for women’s right to vote. Maybe telling those well-documented true stories without judgment would help African American, Native American, and female children feel that they are a part of our history.
The Civil War (NOT the War Between the States, because they had all signed on to the Constitution that made the USA a single nation) was fought over slavery. Of course, it was fought over states’ rights and the Tenth Amendment, but they only right that Southern states were really interested in preserving and protecting in 1861 was the right to own slaves, as their own secession documents make very clear. (Modern Southern states have added the right to own guns and the right to keep other people from having abortions, but that’s another story.) Legislators’ right to tell teachers how and what to teach shouldn’t be protected either; I’m pretty sure their heavy-handedness in exercising control and their miserliness in adequately funding education plays a role in the 1,000 teacher shortage that the state is experiencing right now. (That, and low teacher pay and excessive paperwork).
The rationale for this obsession with “critical race theory” (translation: :inclusive history) is , as I mentioned above, that teaching the actual facts of state and national history may make some students feel guilty or ashamed to be white and/or male. It shouldn’t, and no self-respecting teacher (who has been trained to understand child psychology!) would allow that to happen. Perhaps an accurate reading of the facts of history makes legislators feel that way, but that might be a good thing. Children are not personally accountable for what their ancestors did, but they do be aware of the impact of slavery, patriarchy, segregation, and discrimination on formerly enslaved people to the benefit of others. After Reconstruction, white Southerners turned to what they called Redemption, which was to say, restoring the status quo ante. True redemption would be working toward a equal society with opportunities and support for every person.
History is messy. It is written by the winners in most places, except the American South. Facts are facts, but facts have context and interpretation. South Carolina has an elected Superintendent of Education whose job it is to determine what children need to learn and at what grade level. There is a State Board of Education and an Education Oversight Committee and 79 local school boards who are all trying to look after our children so that they have the skills and knowledge they need to function in adult society as consumers, workers, and citizens. I trust their judgment about what to teach and at what grade level more than that of 170 people elected and regularly re-elected from largely noncompetitive districts who need to get their priorities straight. Health care, housing, infrastructure, education funding—those issues affect all of us and our children.
One of my granddaughters started her public school teaching career this month. For her sake , for the sake of her fellow teachers and the children in their care, please let them teach. If I have to choose between trusting a teacher and trusting legislators to ensure that our children learn the critical thinking skills needed to function in a democracy, it’s a no-brainer!
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