The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice. –Mark Twain
History will be kind to me for I intend to write it. –Winston Churchill
By now you’ve probably heard about the Colorado protests and walk outs by school students and their teachers this week. (See this Denver Post Article or this New York Times article). I’ve been quite caught up with the debates and protests out in Colorado because years ago I taught history… A.P. American History, in fact… in Colorado.
Student protesters have been photographed holding signs such as
- Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty.
- There is nothing more patriotic than protest.
- Education without limitation.
- Honk if you love history.
- Only the nonreader fears books.
- History. We need to know.
What is at the root of these protests? The Colorado (Jefferson County) board, in a proposal to create the committee, said materials for the (A.P., Advanced Placement) class should promote “citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights.” Any materials used in the course, the school board continued in its proposal, should not “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.” These discussions have been tabled until October, but walk outs and protests continued anyway.
The Colorado proposal said that U.S. history instructional materials “should present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage.” It goes on to say, “Content pertaining to political and social movements in history should present balanced and factual treatment of the positions.” [JeffCo Board Committee for Curriculum Review proposal can be read here.]
Putting a “positive” spin on history sounds an awful lot like censorship. That never goes down well in history.
Take a very famous emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. He is lauded for unifying China 2,000 years ago. But he was also quite paranoid. Harvard University’s Peter Bol said that “ideologically speaking the Qin made the argument, We don’t want to hear people criticize the present by referring to the past” [BBC]… and so you probably remember from your history books what the emperor did… He buried Confucian scholars alive and burned books. By suppressing intellectual discourse, he and his advisers hoped to unify thought and political opinion.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that any committee will burn books, but they did write that “The committee shall regularly review texts and curriculum according to priorities that it establishes, however, at any time, the Board may add items to the list for review.” I’m left wondering what those “priorities” are.
And going back to the sentence, “Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.” Just what is civil disorder or social strife anyway? It depends on what side you are on in history. Many, many famous and not-so-famous people have been accused of civil disorder and disregard of the law in their time… and later. It depends on who “wins” and who “writes” the history as to how they are viewed for their actions. Often today’s social strife becomes tomorrow’s common sense. Today’s “trouble makers” become tomorrow’s heroes.
Why is it important to study and even to admire those who challenge the social norms? Here are some powerful people you probably studied in school. Were their actions too violent, unsavory, unpleasant, distasteful for the history books? Did they challenge authority more than they should have? If so, who decides that?
Nat Turner: He was the leader of one of the bloodiest and famous slave rebellions in American history in August 1831. Somewhere between 55 and 65 white men, women and children were killed. Nat Turner’s Rebellion was put down within 48 hours. The state tried and executed 56 blacks on charges of conspiracy, insurrection, and treason. Around 100 or more blacks were killed by militia. After the rebellion, laws were enacted to enforce illiteracy among slaves. The Virginia General Assembly even debated the future of slavery in the state; the proslavery side won. Are the realities of this failed rebellion too negative? Likely to encourage civil disorder? Unpatriotic?
1831 woodcut, courtesy of Wikipedia
Lucretia Mott: In the 1830s, Lucretia Mott spoke out against slavery and racism. Her participation in the anti-slavery movement threatened societal norms of the time. In fact, some people opposed women’s speaking to mixed crowds of men and women, which they called “promiscuous.”
Elizabeth Cady Staton and Susan B. Anthony: These two played a pivotal role in the woman’s suffrage movement, fighting hard for women’s right to vote in the 1850s through early 1900. Elizabeth Cady Staton spoke out on a range of issues from the right of women to ride bicycles to the right for women to vote. Meanwhile, did you know that Susan B. Anthony was arrested? It’s true. According to one historian, she was much despised. She was arrested for voting in the 1870 election.
Are these two women too radical? Perhaps their actions condone “disregard of the law”?
What about the muckrakers of the early 1900s? Certainly they were stirring up trouble with their exposes on the meatpacking industry, photos of child labor and How the Other Half Lives. Did these muckrakers really put America in the best light possible, though? Just look at one of Jacob Riis’ photos of children sleeping in the streets. Not terribly positive, is it?
From Jacob Riis’ famous expose, How the Other Half Lives.
The examples go on and on… Jane Adams, W.E.B. DuBois, Margaret Sanger, Eleanor Roosevelt, Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King, Jr, Betty Friedan, Michael Harrington, Rosa Parks, Ralph Nader. As Peter Dreier wrote in The Nation, Often the radical ideas of one generation becomes the common sense of the next.”
Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total; of all those acts will be written the history of this generation. –Robert Kennedy
Time had a compelling quote about book banning that seems particularly relevant to this debate:
Written words running loose have always presented a challenge to people bent on ruling others. In times past, religious zealots burned heretical ideas and heretics with impartiality. Modern tyrannies promote the contentment and obedience of their subjects by ruthlessly keeping troubling ideas out of their books and minds. Censorship can place people in bondage more efficiently than chains.
I thought one protester’s sign summed things up well, “My education is not your political agenda.”
As homeschoolers now, we have the wonderful privilege of designing and implementing our homeschool history curriculum. In fact, you can take a close look at the units and topics I hope we can cover in history and science while the kids are 6-12 or so. We read and study all kinds of books and materials and I really hope that my kids grow up with as much of a foundation and balance as possible. Everything written has a bias of some sort… but I hope to help the kids learn about that as well.
History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon. –Napoleon Bonaparte
This is the question, isn’t it. Who gets to decide on the version of past events that children learn? A school board? A committee? The college board (which oversees AP exams)? Teachers and parents?