Last week, the State School Board passed new standards for teaching social studies to include information about racism, discrimination, and identity. Republicans, including Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson, opposed the changes, claiming they are anti-American. I did not follow the dispute closely, but I know we need to change the way we teach history and, after what we saw at the Capitol on January, 6, we need a renewed commitment to teaching civics.
I realize that I went to school a long time ago, but we were taught a myth, the same one that my parents and grandparents were taught. And that myth was designed to prop up a system of discrimination that defined the South for most of the 20th century and still has ramifications today. Claiming systemic racism doesn’t exist perpetuates the fallacy that we live in a post-racial society. We need to teach our children the truth about our history so that we do not repeat it and so that they recognize Jim Crow’s legacy.
We were taught a conflicted history. Our country was founded by the some of the smartest men on earth who gave us the greatest country in the world, we learned. The period following the Revolution was one of successful expansion by a blessed young nation, Manifest Destiny, until it was interrupted by the Civil War. We glossed over the Trail of Tears, understanding that it was a bad episode, but we never learned much about the native population in western North Carolina that died along that trek or the ones who hid in the hollers and whose descendants are here today.
Yes, slavery was bad, but most slaves were treated fairly well, they said. John Brown was a crazed fanatic whose actions led to the Civil War. Lincoln was a great president, but the Civil War was still a noble cause and slavery would have ended without it. Reconstruction was a bad period that brought opportunistic carpetbaggers and scalawags to power. We heard about the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglas, but we were taught that Nat Turner terrorized the population, never realizing that a large portion of the population was kept in submission through terror and intimidation.
We made heroes of traitors. Men like Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jackson got whitewashed biographies. Jefferson Davis had a highway named after him that runs from Washington, DC, through the South and across the nation. The narrative we told ourselves played out in our daily lives. We never thought twice about statues saluting traitors on public grounds and overlooking the halls of justice.
The state of Jim Crow depended on denying a segment of the population the right to vote. We were never taught about the violent overthrow of the system in the late 19th century that disenfranchised millions of people in a few short years. We were never taught about the African Americans who served in Congress from Southern states in the years following the Civil War. And, now, fifty years after the fact, I worry that a new generation will not be taught the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement that brought down a corrupt and anti-democratic system.
In a country that idolizes its heroes, children of color, girls, and LGBGT kids have too few. We should be celebrating people like Hiram Revels, a North Carolina native, who became the first African American to serve in the United States Senate. We should understand the impact of denying women the right to vote. Half the population could not participate in our democracy and yet nevertheless made an impact on our history, especially in aspects of social justice. People like Jane Addams and Dorothea Dix changed the way we see the poor and disabled. In class, when we read children “Leaves of Grass,” students should know that Walt Whitman was gay.
I don’t know exactly what standards were debated, but I do know that we need to be more honest in telling our story. The fact that we largely ignore or give passing reference to the impact of African Americans, women and LGBT people shows that the systemic racism that Mark Robinson denies does, in fact, exist. We need people who understand our nation as a story of struggles, overcoming obstacles like voter disenfranchisement to make a more perfect union, one where everyone has the opportunity to succeed.
If we are truly the greatest nation on earth, it’s because we are not limited by the power of one man or one dominant tribe or faction. We aspire to be a single nation that embraces its diversity and offers opportunity regardless of our heritage or our gender. We are a nation of laws that demands accountability of those who would hold other people back. And that history is messy, not neat. That’s what we need to teach our children.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >