Truth should be the only standard
Students have their arms raised during an American history class. (Getty Images)
Among Nebraska’s social studies standards are the Fugitive Slave Act, the Dred Scott Decision and other key components of the country’s original sin: slavery.
But names and dates and details of our history only tug at the fabric of the nation’s narrative. What’s needed for a fuller understanding of our story are perspective, consequence and a through-line to today. So I was heartened to read this language in the standards: “High school history courses emphasize historical thinking. Historical thinking requires understanding and evaluating change and continuity over time, and making appropriate use of historical evidence in answering questions and developing arguments about the past.”
Of course for scholars — young or otherwise — to do their best thinking about history, they must first be armed with the truth: whole, nothing but and complete.
Truth, as it’s been said, is the first casualty in war, however … including the culture wars.
My medium dive into the social studies standards came after I read what Florida schoolchildren will now be learning about slavery.
The Sunshine State’s new social studies curriculum, touted by the state’s governor on the campaign trail for president, will teach students that enslaved people developed skills during their barbaric bondage that could be used for “personal benefit.” Unpacking that odious observation would take up too much space. Suffice to say that such drivel is what happens when teaching the next generation of Americans the truth of our history is considered too “woke” — a word the Florida governor seemingly includes in every sentence.
Efforts in Nebraska to tinker with the aforementioned truth have failed. We still think it wise to let our children know such things as the distemper of Jim Crow laws, how the consequences of the earliest uses of redlining connect to today’s housing and mortgage realities, the horrors of Tuskegee, Tulsa and eugenics, and the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the Midwest in the 1920s.
Before we hand out gold stars and clap the erasers, however, remember that some state senators in the Nebraska Legislature in 2022 wanted to condition our social studies standards. They insisted that history be taught with “intellectual vitality” … as long as no one felt guilty … which, I suppose, meant we’d have to alter the truth. Wiser senators prevailed; history remained unchanged.
Such examples of legislative bodies’ forays into limiting curriculum, banning books or simply meddling are the results of culture warriors bringing their fights to the classroom.
A University of California, Los Angeles study revealed that 45% of public school principals reported that community conflict over curriculum “during the 2021-2022 school year was ‘more’ or ‘much more’ than prior to the pandemic. Only 3% said it was less.”
Indeed, the newest battleground for the culture wars appears to be school boards, where, according to Ballotpedia, the number of candidates for open seats has increased nearly 20% in the last three years.
Nor has higher education escaped the political and cultural divide. Case in point: Texas A&M.
The university’s president resigned after she tried to hire a former New York Times editor and professor of journalism at UT-Austin to lead the school’s journalism department. Apparently the nominee’s work on inclusion and diversity created pushback from some alumni and a conservative publication. When the woman up for the job asked what the problem was, a dean at the school — who has also resigned over the fracas — said, “You’re a Black woman who was at The New York Times and, to these folks, that’s like working for Pravda.” The nominee has returned to UT-Austin.
When the KKK’s resurgence took over many of the civic and political underpinnings in the Midwest in the 192’s, the group waged a culture and misinformation war during which it sold white supremacy and fear.
In Timothy Egan’s fine history of the period, “Fever in the Heartland,” he recounts that the Klan put together “poison squads,” often populated by Klan wives, whose role was to plant propaganda and spread misinformation about Black Americans and their supporters from coffee shops to newspaper editorial pages.
The process worked. At one point during the decade some Midwestern states practiced a de facto system of apartheid. The poison squads and their propaganda campaign played a large part in that history.
For this generation of students, nothing could be more important than the truth of where Nebraska and America have been. That’s because when they are our leaders, when they write curricula, when they pass laws, such truth will determine where Nebraska and America are going.
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