Inclusive History, Anyone?

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!

Generation Segregation

My husband and I bought a house in 1966.  We remodeled it multiple times, the last time with the help of an architect friend.   It was our intent to stay there for the rest of our lives.  It was an intergenerational neighborhood, walking distance to the guitar teacher and the Plez U (more or less a 7-11), full of babysitters.  In my heart I hoped our occupancy would last at least as long as we both lived, because I was nine years younger and healthier than my dear spouse.  But my husband’s last three years were in a nursing home with kidney failure and growing dementia.  Left to fend for myself in a five bedroom house on three levels on an acre and a quarter of land, I moved to the retirement community that adjoins the nursing home where Carl was staying just across the street. 

The only other time I had lived in a largely single generation community was in college, and that was always understood to be a transitional situation. But for eight years now I have lived in a community where there are no residents under sixty and an average age probably closer to 80.  Which I will be in just a few months. Yes, we are also a transitional generation, but the transitions looming are definitely not of the college graduation variety.

Don’t worry! We retirement community dwellers see younger people. Some of them mow our lawns (I still mow my own, but most don’t)  or wait on our tables or tend our ailments (you do get used to having doctors the ages of your grown children).  Adjacent neighborhoods bring dog walkers and bike riders because our streets are city streets open to all, and it’s a nice  place to walk or ride.  The staff at the retirement center are all much younger, including the charming but demanding drillmaster who teaches our exercise class. I have friends on the outside who are too young to live here. I tutor a 12 year old middle school student in language Arts. I go to church, even if right now it is still on Zoom.  I am involved in a civic organization that keeps me on Zoom as its co-president. But I do spend most of my time with my generational peers, and I’ve discovered that maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

Here we are all in a new and different stage of life.  Most of us are retired.  Our days are flexible.  We have aches and pains.  We suffer losses, losses of sight, hearing, and stamina.  Losses off friends, neighbors, family. We forget things.  We also commiserate, encourage, and support each other in matters small and large.  We learn from each other how to tackle new challenges.  We celebrate grandchildren getting married and great grand-children following not long after (or with this generation, sometimes before). Those of us who can still drive give rides to those who can’t. We laugh at our mistakes and comfort one another when life gets hard. In many ways, it is like living in a dorm (or college apartment?), because both house people of the same generation more or less going through the same life changes.

One of the pleasant things about living with a bunch of old folks is that they have long since ceased (with some exceptions) to be competitive.  It’s just too hard, and it doesn’t seem to matter anyway. Social events are smaller and more casual.  Women who took pride in their cooking now proudly announce that they hardly ever cook any more. Heels are shorter and pantyhose is a thing of the past except for weddings and funerals.

One dividing line in this community is between the still married and the newly single.  In earlier decades, some women might be threatened by single women, but at our age, it’s more a question of how we women have a good social life among us when the married ones (some of them) are joined at the hip with a spouse? Often it is a spouse for whom they are a caregiver, but sometimes married couples are just used to doing things in pairs. As a result, a lot of new friendships form on the basis of marital status.  At the same time, political polarization has led to a lot of friendships being grounded on a shared view of the world.  Fortunately, there are enough of each political and/or religious persuasion in this community of some 250 souls, plus some in the middle, to ensure that there are enough congenial friends to go around.  And for those with whom talk of politics or religion might be a dividing line, we can always retreat to cats, grandchildren, and gardening.

I truly believed I would never be attracted to a retirement community.  Yet another life lesson of the golden years: never say never!.

Winter Holidays

Most of you know I am a big fan of holidays.  This year Hanukkah (eight days starting December 3rd) runs alongside Advent (December 2nd to 24th) and tiptoes through Saint Nicholas Day (December 6th). Solstice is the 21st, so have your Yule log ready.  Then Christmas and Kwanzaa (December 26-January 1) and finally Three Kings’ Day (January 6th), rounding out exactly a month of winter holidays.  I usually forgo Hanukkah and Kwanzaa because I don’t know the routine and stick with my Western European heritage represented by Christmas and solstice.  But all of us in the Northern Hemisphere are celebrating the same thing. light. Hope. Warmth.  Snuggling down into our winter cocoons and letting the seeds of renewal germinate inside us. I just can’t wrap my head around celebrating Christmas in Australian and New Zealand!

Every year I struggle with how best to to celebrate these holidays. For years I was teaching at the university up till maybe ten days before Christmas, and I found it  hard to quiet the mind for Advent, or turn the Christmas spirit off to grade exams and then turn it back on.  Now it is much easier to set the work aside.  I do not shop on Black Friday or Cyber Monday.  Each year I try to spend less money on gifts and more time on experiences–music, theater, movies with the grandchildren, listening to Christmas music. (Deck the Halls is my personal song.)  I refuse to consult wish lists, trying instead to listen to who each person is and get them the right book and the right funny socks or T-shirt that rflects what is special about each of them. I try to observe the solstice in ways that are respectful of Mother Earth by generating less waste (reusable cloth gift bags are this year’s addition), turning down the thermostat, and shopping locally from small stores and artisans.

Certain things are slow to change.  Christmas is still family time. When my dear husband of 53 years died just a few weeks before Christmas in 2015, my three daughters took on the task of supplying the traditional gifts–a book, a nightgown, and a jigsaw puzzle.  The jigsaw puzzle is for after the kitchen is cleaned up from four or five days with the eleven people in my immediate family.  But as I get older, I farm more tasks out.  The home is smaller, and so is the tree.  I have been giving Santas from my large collection to daughters and grandchildren. I know the day will come when we gather at my oldest daughter’s house, but I’m not ready yet.

In Hindu tradition, when one’s hair is white and one has seen one’s grandsons, it is time to let go of household responsibilities and material possessions and seek the life of wisdom and the spirit.  I’m not there yet, but I’m moving in that direction, and the gradual evolution of my Christmas holidays is one of the times that invite me to reflect on this stage of the journey.  That’s the start of my passage.  How is yours?