Thursday, September 10, 2020

Do Our Children Deserve the Truth?

Knowing our history, the good and the bad, is the first step, I want my children to love the country they live in, but I also want them to be clear-eyed about what that country is.
- America Ferrara , Actor

In 1970, when I was a wet-behind-the-ears, 22 year-old social studies teacher at Bristol Junior-Senior High School, I was teaching a ninth grade Civics course. The topic was the the Bill of Rights and specifically, the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights, which states in part:

Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion...

I explained that the Founding Fathers were concerned about the co-mingling of religion and government that many had escaped in Europe and wanted to be sure that religious freedom was guaranteed in the new country.

A student raised his hand. "Mr. Walsh, if that law is in the Constitution, why do we have do we say "under God" every morning when we salute the flag. Isn't that mixing religion and government?"

Good question. My answer: 

The original Pledge of Allegiance did not contain the words "under God." These words were added in 1954 during the Cold War, a period when the fear of an atomic war between the United States and the communist USSR was high. Many viewed communism as a threat to the American way of life, and were particularly concerned that communism was a godless philosophy.  In this country the period was known as McCarthyism, named after a Senator from Wisconsin, who accused many people of being communists, caused many innocent people to be blacklisted so they could not get  work, and generally stirred -up people's fear of communism. Under pressure from anti-communists in and out of the government, Congress approved the addition of the words "under God" to the Pledge and then President Eisenhower spoke in favor of the change. And so we now say "under God" in the pledge. Interestingly, it was also President Eisenhower who two years later, in 1956, declared "In God We Trust" as the motto of the United States and in 1957 those three words were first printed on our money. Since that time many people have pointed out that these words go against what the Founding Fathers thought about the role of religion in government and the issue is still controversial for some.*

As far as I know no children were harmed by me telling them this truth.

It has always seemed to me that teaching the truth about America is the most American act we can commit. A great deal of our history is wonderful: freedom of religion, land of opportunity, great democracy, economic success. A great deal of our history is horrible: genocide of Native Americans, slavery, Jim Crow, imperialism, economic inequity. In that, we are like every other civilization in history. Have we gotten more things right than many other civilizations? Perhaps. But that does not absolve us from those things we have gotten wrong. 

It has never seemed to me that our heroes needed to be perfect to be considered heroes. It is, indeed, perhaps more heroic that imperfect people overcame their imperfections to make great contributions to our country. It is also true that we must judge our historic figures and the actions they took with a sense of historical mindedness. We cannot blame doctors for bleeding patients in the 18th century because we knew by the 20th century that this was more likely to kill than cure. People are surely products of their times.

With this in mind, we may not wish to judge Washington and Jefferson too harshly for owning slaves, being that this was so common for men of their time, but we cannot excuse lightly, I think, Jefferson's relationship with his slave Sally Hemings. Common practice of the times perhaps, but still rape and still reprehensible. Jefferson, of course, knew this because he kept it secret and his descendants attempted to keep the truth buried. Jefferson's character cannot be fully understood without an examination of this relationship. Nor can we get a full picture of Washington without examining his dogged pursuit of runaway slaves or his evolving views on slavery that led him to (conditionally) free his slaves at the end of his life.

There seems to be a sentiment among some that school children should not learn about the flaws of our heroes. School textbooks have a long history of glossing over the more unseemly aspects of our history. Biographies written for young people are often whitewash jobs. Just this past week President Trump threatened the funding of California schools because they were integrating The 1619 Project into their American History curriculum. The 1619 Project focuses the historical lens around the time that the first slave ship arrived in America. The appropriately named Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas has introduced legislation that would prevent schools from teaching the curriculum. 

California's Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond replied appropriately:

California’s educators should feel empowered to lead courageous conversations with their students about the history of race and racism in our country—not worry if their school will lose funding.

And there it is. Courageous conversations are the lifeblood of a history class. For America to live up to its ideals of freedom and justice for all, we must examine our history warts and all. These discussions will not weaken the country, but strengthen it. To come face to face with our history is not to weaken our country, but to make it stronger. To tell our young people the truth is not to undermine our greatness, but to better assure that our greatness can be even greater in the future. Who can't handle the truth? Apparently only a few old white guys in Washington. Our kids and our country will be better off with the truth.

We might ask at what age we would want to make sure the children were hearing the truth. I would argue that if the topic is in the curriculum, whatever grade that might be, is the right time to start. If children are old enough to learn about the contributions of Squanto and Sacajawea, they are old enough to know what the people who came to their land did to their people.

* The words "under God" in the pledge have been challenged many times in the courts. In its most recent ruling in 2004, the US Supreme Court rejected a suit against the words on a technicality, but three of the Justices: Rehnquist, O'Conner, and Thomas, asserted that the Pledge, including the words "under God" were constitutional. Other court cases have asserted that no one can be compelled to say the Pledge.

No comments:

Post a Comment