This is a tale of two countries.
The first country was built on a radical new promise of human equality and a guarantee of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That country made it possible for even those born in the humblest and most meager circumstances to climb to the pinnacle of prosperity and achievement. It helped save the world in a great global conflagration, fed and rebuilt the devastated nations of Europe, planted the first footprints on another world.
The second country was built on the uncompensated labor of human beings owned from birth till death by other human beings. That country committed genocide against its indigenous people, fabricated a war in order to snatch territory belonging to its neighbor, put its own citizens in concentration camps. And it practiced the “science” of eugenics with such enthusiasm that it inspired advocates of mandatory sterilization and racial purity all over the world. One was an obscure German politician named Adolf Hitler.
Obviously, the first of those countries is America. But the second is, too.
This would not come as a surprise to any reasonably competent student of American history. But that is a category that soon may not include students in Jefferson County, Colorado. The good news is, they are not taking it lying down.
To the contrary, hundreds of them staged mass walkouts from at least five area high schools last week. They chanted and held up signs in protest of a proposed directive from a newly elected conservative school board member that would require teachers of history to “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system.”
Teachers are further told to emphasize “positive aspects” of U.S. heritage and to avoid lessons that “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”
Like, say, the civil rights movement.
To the students’ credit, they recognized this for the act of intellectual vandalism it was and did a very American thing. They protested. As of late last week, the board was promising to revise the proposal, claiming it had been misunderstood.
Actually, it was understood all too well. One frequently sees these efforts to whitewash the ugliness out of American history. The state of Virginia was ridiculed in 2010 for a history book that falsely claimed thousands of black soldiers fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. The state of Arizona passed a law that same year restricting ethnic studies classes under the theory that they tend to “promote resentment toward a race or class of people.”
Now, here are educators in Colorado promoting a “happy history” that will leave students positive, patriotic — and ignorant.
There is a reason courts require witnesses to tell “the truth, the whole truth.” To tell half the truth is to tell a lie of omission. And in this tale of two countries, the whole truth is not summed up in the triumphs of the first country any more than in the sins of the second. America is both those nations. And American history, properly understood, is a story about the summit we sometimes reach and the sewer we too often tread, about the work of resolving the tension between America’s dream and its reality.
Such complexity tends to frighten and confuse small-minded people who think you can’t love your country and question it too, can’t celebrate its glories if you acknowledge its failures. So instead they embrace this “happy history” that is stagnant, barren and antithetical to progress. Why would you work to resolve the tension between the dream and the reality if you’ve been taught that the dream is the reality?
Censoring history is an act of cowardice. The Colorado demonstrations suggest that some of us, at least, are still brave enough for the truth.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo: Ken Lund via Flickr
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