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Fighting to Teach Real American History


The freakout over Critical Race Theory is just a proxy for the real goal of banning the teaching of American history that doesn’t fit conservative politics. Talking about slavery and genocide and oppression and anything else that might possibly make kids rethink the idea that America is the greatest country in human history and don’t ask me any questions why commie is anathema to these people. It is also my view that this is a new form of McCarthyism that requires fear to win. If teachers simply refuse to change what they do en masse, then they can’t really win. Are they going to fire all the history teachers? Do they want that attention? Unfortunately, a lot of history teachers, both at the high school and college level, are pretty scared right now. That fear is a victory for the right. But some are not scared and they are fighting for what is right:

Now teachers are pushing back. On Saturday, groups in more than 22 cities are organizing rallies and other events to protest legislative efforts to restrict the scope of such conversations.

Becky Pringle, president of the National Teachers Association, the country’s largest teachers’ union, said the organization is weighing legal action against laws restricting how racism and history are taught. 

“And we’ll defend any teachers brought up on charges,” she said. 

It’s the National Education Association, but I guess we can’t expect our reporters to do basic fact-checking on unions. Anyway….

The events Saturday may include speeches or resemble a pop-up American history fair, Pringle said.

The National Education Association is supporting the effort. The lead organizer is the Zinn Education Project, an initiative of two liberal nonprofits, the Washington, D.C.-based Teaching for Change and Milwaukee-based Rethinking Schools. Black Lives Matter at School, a national coalition that advocates for racial justice in education, is also involved.

“Our children deserve to be taught authentic, connective histories,” said Tamara Anderson, a member of Black Lives Matter at School and an organizer of Saturday’s events in Philadelphia. “Indigenous, Black, Latino, Asian and other people of color make up the fabric of what is actually America.”

Pennsylvania’s Republican lawmakers have introduced a bill that would penalize schools that teach about the country’s racist and sexist past.

Similar battles are unfolding in other states. 

Florida’s state Board of Education on Thursday put tougher guidelines on how public schools teach U.S. history. Critics chanted, “Allow teachers to teach the truth,” during the meeting, which forced a recess.

Heather Smith, a 42-year-old middle school technology teacher, is organizing the rally in Youngstown, Ohio. She had little exposure to the full history of segregation until she began reading about it in her late 30s, she said, and she’s spent the past several years educating herself on systemic racism and grassroots activism.

House Republicans in Ohio introduced a bill in late May that would ban schools from teaching critical race theory, which its sponsors called dangerous and divisive.

Smith, 42, works in a school with predominantly whiteteachers and predominantly Black students. She signed the pledge, started a Facebook group and partnered with local education activists. She reached out to a former student, who is Black and owns a clothing company, to create T-shirts promoting the pledge’s message.

The Youngstown rally will be held at the city’s only remaining public swimming pool.

“I want people to pledge to teach the truth no matter what the law says,” Smith said.

Middleton, the Arkansas teacher, is organizing his community’s rally at a Trail of Tears marker in Springdale, Arkansas. He’s never led a protest. But he’s spent the past year reading about race and listening to more views from people of color. He’s begun connecting historical injustices to the disproportionate amount of Black men killed by police.

He’s determined to offer his students a broader lens of history even if Arkansas ends up barring him from discussing certain aspects of race in America.

“There are not many things I’m willing to lose my license over,” he said. “But the truth – and advocating for my students – is one of them.”

It’s easy enough for me to say–though of course it’s not as if I don’t already have a giant target on my back–but this is the right response. What we do as historians is tell the truth the best we can. That doesn’t mean our teaching has to be politicized, though it can be. It means that we seek to interpret the past the best we can and give the students the tools to interpret the past. If we can’t do that, we might as well go into another profession. What’s the point otherwise?

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