Tuesday, October 7, 2014

History in Humility

At dinner, Abigail said, "I don't like Christopher Columbus."

Josh and I were surprised to hear this kind of declaration from a seven-year-old, so of course we asked, "Why?"

"Because he came here and took things from the people who were already here and made them sick."

We have a brief conversation about this harsh reality, about the context of Thanksgiving, about the way fear due to language gaps and cultural differences leads people to make bad decisions.

Then I pose a question to my kids: "Right now in the area we used to live, people disagree about how history should be taught. Some people think kids should learn both the good and bad parts of our history, but others say only the good parts of history should be taught. What do you think about that?"

Without hesitation, Benjamin, nine, says, "I think both should be taught so that we can learn from the mistakes."

Abigail, seven, says, "I think maybe they should just teach the good, because people might get bad ideas from the bad parts."

I realize this conversation oversimplifies the debate over the revised Advanced Placement U.S. History (APUSH) framework currently finding its stage in Jeffco, the Colorado school district from which we hail (which is actually a misguided and misinformed debate to begin with), but the kids' responses get to the core of the discussion.

Should the history curriculum star the U.S. as a noble hero championing freedom and democracy for all? Or as a flawed, complex character influenced at times by justice and honor and other times by prejudice and self-interest?

Will kids learn to be better citizens from a history that emphasizes the ideal or from a history that acknowledges the full, messy story?

The majority on the Jeffco school board wants to create a committee--separate from the district's existing curriculum review committee--to examine the new APUSH framework. Board member Julie William's proposal defines the guidelines by which the curriculum would be assessed:

Review criteria shall include the following: instructional materials should present the most current factual information accurately and objectively. Theories should be distinguished from fact. Materials should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights. Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law. Instructional materials should present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage. Content pertaining to political and social movements in history should present balanced and factual treatment of the positions.

Leaving aside the conflicting notion that "factual information" presented "accurately and objectively" should also promote a point of view--and the irony that Williams is, herself, affiliated with the Tea Party, a political party named for one of our country's most iconic acts of civil disorder, social strife, and disregard of the law--I confess I don't understand the purpose of presenting only or mostly positive aspects of our heritage.

What do we have to lose by looking honestly at the travesties committed against others in our construction of a "city on a hill"? What is at stake when we acknowledge that our great democracy was, at times, established and grown at the expense of other people groups?

My senior year of high school, the year after I took A.P. U.S. History, I had a physics teacher who ranted that he couldn't stand people who talk about the negative parts of our country's history. He insisted that if people didn't like America, they should leave the country and live somewhere else--as though an honest examination of history somehow equates to a hate of country, as though patriotism requires a blind adherence to a belief in our country's infallible goodness.

Unfortunately, the sins of our forefathers are fact. Glossing over their impact does not make them less true but instead leaves us vulnerable to repeating them.

Perhaps the cost of our freedom is facing the discomfort of our less-than-blameless heritage.

Today, our country continues to wrestle issues of racism, immigration, representation in government, economic opportunity, and our role in the world. We have much to learn from the previous generations' successes and failures, but we cannot discern right action from an incomplete, artificially positive perspective.

I do not love my country less for knowing its ugliness. I love our country less when, despite centuries of toil and sacrifice and the slow slog of righting injustice, those who claim to defend its greatness would actually diminish it through a limited narrative that glorifies one group's experience over all others'.

Well, after our conversation about Jeffco's debate, Abigail asked, "So was Columbus bad or good?"

Isn't that how we tend to think? That leaders, or ideas, or countries are only one or the other? Our world view is much simpler when we can neatly categorize people and events, but real life is rarely so accommodating.

"Well, both," I said, "depending on whose perspective you're looking from. To Spain, Columbus was good. He found new land and resources that helped them. But to the Native Americans who lost their lives and land, he was bad."

When I consider both views in this APUSH discussion, I see a debate that asks whether our country's history curriculum should be rooted in pride or humility.

May I gently suggest that we know where pride goeth.

I would prefer membership in a country that admits wrong-doing, asks forgiveness, and repents of its evils while striving ever more diligently toward the ideal. A truly exceptional country would eschew horn-tooting for the steady, quiet work that accomplishes true freedom for all.

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