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We Can Do Better: Lessons from Charlottesville

created Aug 14, 2017 01:41 PM

by Nancy McTygue, Executive Director

The images are horrifying – angry white men with torches lit marching through a southern town on a summer night.  Bodies flying in the air after being struck by a dark grey car.  Bloodied young people, screaming in pain and agony after being attacked by a mob of protestors carrying sticks, shields, and Nazi flags.  These scenes are not from Selma in 1965 or even Nuremberg in the 1930s. It was in a college town in Virginia in 2017.  As hard as it is for us to watch, we dare not look away because this weekend’s carnage in Charlottesville demonstrates once again the scourge of racial violence and hatred that has plagued our country since its inception.  As Americans we have a duty to confront and speak out against the hatred that filled the streets of the Virginia Commonwealth.  As American educators, this duty extends beyond our own actions as individuals – it demands that we teach our students the long harrowing journey of America’s struggle with race and justice.  Derek Weimer knows this.  A US history teacher from Kentucky, Weimer was James Alex Fields, Jr.’s history teacher at Randall K. Cooper High School.  In an interview published in the Washington Post, Weimer said that this weekend’s violence is “…definitely a teachable moment and something we need to be vigilant about, because this stuff is tearing up our country.”

For more than a decade, many California schools have prioritized English / Language Arts, Mathematics, and to a lesser degree, science.  Teachers in these three subject areas received more training, better instructional materials, and in many schools, more time in the school day.  School leaders chose to emphasize these subjects for a number of important reasons, but one significant and admittedly unintended consequence has been that thousands of students lack a basic understanding of our history and do not possess the skills they need to participate responsibly and productively in the American democratic system.  The adoption of California’s new History-Social Science Framework in 2016 has helped – more schools are teaching history and we’re starting to see districts invest in history-social science support once again, but it is not enough.  Children are still graduating from high school without a substantive understanding of American and world history.  Students don’t understand the difference between primary and secondary sources – and how they can use sources as evidence to evaluate the validity of claims made by others.  Politicians and journalists conflate memory with history, nostalgia with fact, and somewhere in between is the truth that students must discern for themselves.

Some pundits this weekend have said that Charlottesville will be a turning point – that Americans will finally start acknowledging the hate that has simmered just below the surface, and work together to combat the divisions that continues to divide our nation.  I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that smart, hardworking educators can make a difference for our next generation – by teaching them about our history and giving them the tools they need to lead us into a better place in the future:

  • Separating fact from fiction.  The genesis of this particular crisis is Charlottesville’s decision to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from their Emancipation (formerly Lee) Park.  White nationalists were in Charlottesville this weekend to protest the removal of the statue.  The statue was erected in Charlottesville in 1924, almost 60 years after the Civil War’s conclusion. Students of history can use that evidence, as well as the public statements of city leaders and community members from the time to develop their own impression of why the statue was erected and whether or not its removal really does dishonor the soldiers who fought in our country’s bloodiest war, over our greatest sin, slavery.  Moreover, through in-depth consideration of the extended conflict over race in this country – starting with the importation of slaves during the colonial period, the legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction, and continuing to discussions today about criminal justice reform and the protection of civil rights – students can begin to understand the complexity of the issue and the names referenced in the debate.  Students can learn that General Lee, for example, was a decorated veteran of the US-Mexico war, who as a slave owner wrote that the institution was a “moral and political evil.”  Through historical investigation, students can learn for themselves what happened, and with that knowledge, be able to discern fact from fiction and genuine evidence from distortion about the past.
  • The importance of rhetorical analysis.  Students of history pay close attention to what people said and wrote in the past in order to understand the motivations and actions of historical actors.  Words matter to historians – as they should for the rest of us.  Students need to be taught how to deconstruct the words of our current and historical public leaders, as well as their fellow men and women.  They also need to be taught how to choose their words carefully in order to participate in civil discourse.
  • A shared understanding of the past.  One reason that the white nationalist faction has grown has been their ability to manipulate the historical narrative through both subtle and overt misrepresentation of history.  Although history is an interpretative discipline, students of the discipline do develop a foundational understanding of what happened in American history and are able to tell the difference between a subjective claim and outright fabrication because they know what happened, when, and often why.

History-social science has been marginalized over the last fifteen years; the terror Virginia experienced this weekend shows the danger of a narrowed curriculum – a lost generation swayed by hateful rhetoric, unaware of the past, and unprepared and unwilling to support the common good.  As detailed in California’s Constitution, the leaders of our public school system have a specific responsibility to prepare future citizens to assume that responsibility:  “A general diffusion of knowledge and intelligence being essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people.”  California’s public schools can’t solve the problems of racial division and inequity in our country, but we can play an important role.  Dedicating time and resources to the study of history and the related social sciences is an important first step.  Students need to know our history and be prepared to use the lessons they learn from the past to understand the significant context in which they are coming of age.  Let’s get to work.