Censoring American History

Photo by oleksiy / 123RF

My students walked out on me last week. Just got up, left my classroom and marched right out of the school. I’ve been an English teacher in Jefferson County, Colorado, for eighteen years and I’ve never seen anything like it. I know Julie Williams personally; she’s the School Board member who submitted the controversial proposal to create an additional curriculum review committee for our school district.

The committee’s first task would be to review the Advanced Placement U.S. History curriculum, a framework written by the College Board and taught in high schools across the country. The framework was revamped this year and has taken heat from the Republican National Committee, which claims it “emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history.” The new framework is also under fire from the Texas State Board of Education.

There is no mistaking it‑the fight over our schools is both national and partisan, another front in a wider culture war. Why does the American history issue resonate so widely? Why did our students empty their schools in protest? Because it’s about identity.

American history matters because we are Americans. The way we teach and understand our history shapes who we are.

Before my students stood up and walked out of my class, one of them told me why he was heading out to the street. Isaiah had read the proposal outlining the purpose of the new committee and had the draft in hand. He had even highlighted the language that angered him: “Materials should promote citizenship, patriotism … should not encourage or condone civil disorder … Instructional materials should present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage.”

I am well versed in the politics of the county. It’s been a conservative community for as long as I’ve lived in it. So I must admit, both events surprised me: the proposal for the committee and to see my angry students get up and leave my classroom, to see them again on the national and the international news.

I was alone in the room and had some time to think. Like many Americans I don’t fit on the left or the right.

I’d guess Isaiah is on the left politically. He belongs to the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. If he thinks that our country has committed atrocities, I’d agree with him. The human consequences of those acts are incalculable. And I also think he’s right to want to study that history.

I had curriculum to cover and played it stern when Isaiah led my students out of the classroom. He didn’t know how I felt about the protest.

I confronted him after school and asked, “How can you justify leaving class?” I wasn’t cutting him any slack.

Isaiah offered an unanswering gaze. Thousands upon thousands of kids took to the street. They organized themselves. They walked out of just about every high school in the district. They made national news.

The silence was not uncomfortable, but each of us was sizing up the other.

The truth is I was proud of Isaiah. Not because of his stance on the issue, but because of his courage, because of his passion. I was proud of every one of them. The kids were well informed, better versed than most adults in the local school board politics. But I didn’t let on.

“Why’d you do it?”

“My ancestors died for a reason.” He let that sit awhile then asked, “Will we leave that history out because it doesn’t present a ‘positive aspect’ of the United States?”

I didn’t have the answer, what would be left in and what would be left out of the history curriculum. But I knew this: the angst we felt, that electricity pulsing between us, was about identity, both his identity and mine.

“Without that history,” Isaiah asked, “how would we know how you and I came to be here today?”

It was one of those questions that after it was uttered never seemed to end.

It’s an absurd thing to admit, but I’ll admit it anyway: I wanted to talk to him about the doctrine of American exceptionalism. For some, it simply means that the United States holds a unique place in the history of nations. In that context, it is a reference to historical and contemporary importance. Others take exceptionalism to a faith-based definition, equating America’s favor in the eye of God to the favor God bestowed upon the nation of Israel in the scriptures. This iteration of American exceptionalism speaks of the United States as God’s chosen country. The belief is widely held by religious conservatives.

I could see the scar of four circles on Isaiah’s left shoulder, a four-year commitment to return to the Sun Dance. Isaiah is a charismatic student, a leader. He actively participates in the traditions and the ceremonies of his culture. He helps run a Native American youth group. It’s rare to meet a kid so intentional about his connection to his heritage.

I once asked him why it was so important to him. He told me, “It’s how I was raised.”

I didn’t know how to ask Isaiah so I didn’t, but I wondered about it the whole time we stood there. I wondered what it would mean for him, for his identity, if ours was, indeed, God’s chosen nation.

There is a subset of the religious belief in American exceptionalism that takes an extreme position. Although with decreasing frequency over the decades, I still hear it, from time-to-time, justified: the genocide of the native inhabitants of this country as a conquest directed by God. That version of Manifest Destiny draws from the biblical conquest of Canaan, once again equating America with Biblical Israel. In that narrative, the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians would be disregarded as Canaanites given for conquest. Genocide would be holy war. The conquest would be justified as God’s will.

However, I don’t know many people who’d be willing to articulate that belief in public today. The reason likely being that the American public wouldn’t tolerate the belief. The country has changed.

That being said, Americans living during the days of westward expansion were not so shy about articulating their point of view. Manifest Destiny can be understood as an early expression of American exceptionalism, and the belief that the conquest was God’s will was a common rational for the extermination of whole nations of people. As a matter of fact, extermination was the word used by American policy makers of the time.

These events, centuries long, belong to our nation’s history. What does that say about us as a people? What does the way we talk about this history say about us?

Angered by a proposal to discourage civil disorder and to present positive aspects of the United States in the teaching of American history, Isaiah walked out of my classroom and took to the streets.

Thousands of kids joined him.

Isaiah’s point of view is that the proposal to create a curricular review committee is an attempt to sanitize history. In his words, “They want to hide what they did.”

“What would be a balanced approach to teaching history?” I asked.

“How do you balance the death of so many women and children?”

There was no answer.

“Our language is dying, our medicine men are dying, our elders are dying, our ceremonies are slowly stopping.” He finished his statement with four words, “Our religion, our culture.”

All that weight just hanging in the air.

I know that Julie Williams, the author of the controversial proposal, is conservative politically. If she thinks that our children can be hurt by a curriculum that fails to celebrate our country’s contributions to human rights, justice and liberty, I’d agree with her.

I want my students to know that there are men and women who sacrificed their lives for them. There are heroes in American history. I want my students to be inspired by those heroes. I want them to be proud of American culture, of our American heritage. Not uncritical, but proud. Without pride, there is a self-contempt that creeps into a young person’s heart. It does none of us any good to have our children hating themselves.

Identity matters.

As a teacher, I work closely with a broad spectrum of the American public. Many young people when confronted with the realities of the genocide in our nation’s history feel indignation and disgust. Because their nationality is an important component of their identity, they internalize this feeling. I have seen it thousands of times over. Overwhelmed by the reality of their ancestors’ violence, these kids enter a dark phase. It becomes difficult for them to see anything good about their heritage.

“America sucks,” Annie told me. That’s what she said when she walked out of my classroom to join the protest.

The reasons why her statement broke my heart are complex. Maybe the first of which is that the same thing happened to me. It happened to a lot of us. I had naively come to understand hundreds of years of American history as something akin to pilgrims and Thanksgiving. Finding out that whole nations of people were rubbed out as the American settler moved west was like waking up one day in U.S. history and feeling like I had been sold a bill of goods. Why didn’t anyone tell me? It made me feel as if someone had been hiding a sinister reality behind an American myth.

It didn’t have to be that way. The options aren’t one history or the other. I wish someone would have taught me both.

Annie is in a vulnerable place developmentally. She needs to individuate. Most of us went through a rebellious stage and remember it well. What’s different about Annie’s generation is that she is also grappling with the heavy realities of American history, realities that got less exposure in school with previous generations.

I was older than Annie when I went through it, the disillusionment. She’s fifteen.

“Why does it suck?” I asked.

“Because we came here and took everything. I don’t want it.”

“What do you want to do?” I asked.

“Give it back.”

“Where would you live?”

“What does it matter where I live?”

By now, I had decided just to listen.

“White people have all the privilege. All we do is kill and exploit.”

One of the unfortunate, and common, consequences of the individuating adolescent being exposed to such hard truths is a hatred of self. Which is another reason why Annie’s statement broke my heart. I see it all the time: the repulsion for the violence and the injustice turned inward. It is not obvious to Annie that she can simultaneously love her country and hate the atrocities committed by previous Americans. What she knows is anger.

“You know what I hope for, Annie?” I’ve repeated it a dozen times, which is why she rolled her eyes. I repeated it when she ditched my class. I repeated it when she was ensnared in an abusive relationship. I didn’t let Annie’s annoyance derail me and repeated it again, “I hope that you’ll learn to love yourself.” Her eyes began to water. “That means your heritage, too, your culture, even your whiteness.”

I’m not sure Annie could really process what I was saying. That’s OK. Because I’ve worked with hundreds of kids. I have seen it over and over again. The anger turned inward. Annie cuts herself, evidenced by the raised scars that run along her forearm. The sad reality is that most teenagers take whatever anger they have for authority (their parents, their country) out on themselves.

So I keep offering her my vision of her future. Because one day, it’ll click.

Nationality is an inescapable component of identity, and it is good for kids to be proud of who they are. We call it self-esteem.

I’m not going to argue that Annie’s struggle with herself is all about American history. It’s not that simple. Her life has dealt her more cards than just that. But there is no question in my mind that, like Isaiah, she has been traumatized by our nation’s poor handling of that history.

A fair but simple summary of the school board controversy in Jefferson County might put it this way: a progressive concern is that we aren’t paying adequate attention to our nation’s shortcomings; a conservative concern is that we aren’t paying adequate attention to our nation’s greatness. What if both concerns are valid?

If so, than the opposite may also be true: to entrench on one side of this debate would be a mistake in that a curriculum at either extreme hurts kids.

Each side of the controversy has made a caricature out of the other. Such a disingenuous form of dialogue does nothing to move the conversation forward. To get at the truth we have to crawl beneath the subtext. We have to empathize with Annie. We have to empathize with Isaiah. And their thousands of brothers and sisters. The reality is that both the left and the right are calling for a more balanced presentation of history. This battle in the ongoing culture war is about who will write the definition of balance.

For me it’s not about ideology. It’s about kids. Which is why I think it’s essential we recognize that the United States has made great contributions to humanity, that, in this sense, it is an exceptional country. One of our nation’s founding principals, of which I am proud, is the liberty to criticize power. That freedom has allowed us to learn from our mistakes. This constitutional right suggests that we should be skeptical of a doctrine of exceptionalism that attempts to rationalize injustice or to repress aspects of our nation’s history that are shameful.

Shame is powerful, especially when repressed. To disarm shame, we must expose it to light. While that is true, we must also protect our children. For them to navigate a reality as heavy as genocide, they need guidance. They need a foundation of pride.

I’ve been in the classroom a long time. Isaiah and Annie both carry an impossible weight. Isaiah’s loss is incalculable and ongoing. His culture, his way of life are disappearing.

“I need to know about my people,” Isaiah told me with an earnestness that seared my heart. “I need to know where I come from.”

Annie bears the weight of the wrongdoing of her ancestors. Both kids need adults in their lives, mentors, to guide them. I hope Annie will look at history honestly, that she will learn whatever lesson is to be learned. But she needs a good teacher. Someone who will show her how to be gentle with herself. Because history is not about some textbook. It’s about who we are.

Tags: ,