What’s more, we are the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea — the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny. That’s why centuries of pioneers and immigrants have risked everything to come here. It’s why our students don’t just memorize equations, but answer questions like “What do you think of that idea? What would you change about the world? What do you want to be when you grow up?”
–Barack Obama, 2011 State of the Union Address
I found it ironic from a personal standpoint that the President highlighted this freedom of thought as a bedrock of the American system of education, embedded in its history, when right around the corner from his place in Downtown, DC, that very history is being stripped of the basis for even asking the question “What do you think of that idea?”
As I noted in my last post on this topic, while our elementary school teachers have the responsibility to make social studies into something interesting, they are not trained historians. In short, I think they need help—both the raw materials and the support from the school system to make history class into a real place of learning. On the first item, the raw materials, our textbooks are failing our teachers and our students badly.
As example I return to my punching bag and look more closely one of the sections left untouched in the “corrected” version of Our Virginia. In the section titled “A More Perfect Union?” regarding the founding of the Constitution, crucial omissions and historically inaccurate statements turn one of the most fascinating turning points in American history in which Virginia was at the epicenter into a mélange of lies and half-truths. This robs students of real chances to learn, and teachers from real chances to make this history alive and relevant to their students. Here re two particularly apt examples:
Quote from Our Virginia: “The issue of slavery was on everyone’s mind as the Constitution was being written. Many Northerners wanted slavery ended or at least limited. People from the Southern states did not.”
The Issue: So where did Virginia stand? Well, the text sort of assumes (but does not say) that Virginia is a Southern state, but unlike the states of the Deep South, Virginia’s leaders were far more conflicted. Indeed, George Mason and Patrick Henry both argued vehemently against any extension of the slave trade, something that fellow Virginian James Madison pushed into the Constitution as a compromise between North and South to secure a strong federal government. What would have happened if Mason and Henry had gotten their way? Might it have helped a transition away from slavery that could have avoided the bloodiest conflict in American History, the Civil War? Well, our students will never know, because according to “Our Virginia” there was no debate.
Quote from Our Virginia: “Two Virginians, Patrick Henry and George Mason, felt that the Constitution did not go far enough in promising personal freedoms, so they refused to vote for it.”
The Issue: This is simply not true. Indeed Peter Wallenstein (author of the book Cradle of America: Four Centuries of Virginia History, the great book I’ve been reading to try and keep up/debunk Our Virginia) expertly debunks the common myth that Mason didn’t sign the Constitution because of individual rights. Indeed, Mason called Madison’s Bill of Rights amendments to the Constitution that we hold so dear “Milk and Water” measures—ignoring what he considered the most important issues of the day—two of which were the aforementioned slave trade, but also the power of the new federal government to potentially put a tax on slave-owners that would unfairly burden Virginians. These two rationales seems in direct contradiction to each other—wanting to move toward an end to slavery on one hand, but fighting to protect slave-owners economic interests on the other. So who was George Mason—emancipator or defender of slavery? Both could be argued, but our students never get a chance to even be asked the question.
So, “what do you think?” doesn’t get us very far if the material is devoid of anything meaningful to think about. Gus and I got into a very interesting discussion about the fact that two of the major known figures in his book, Nat Turner and John Brown, both used the bible as justification for their actions to end slavery. But my book, Cradle of Virginia notes other figures, such as Thornton Stringfellow, a Baptist minister that was essential in the split between Northern and Southern Baptists. He used the bible as justification for slavery, saying that in the Old Testament, slavery was accepted, and Jesus made no mention of the subject in the New Testament and directed all Christians to accept their stations in life.
I asked Gus “do you think the Bible is for or against slavery?” Gus really mulled it over, and responded that if God worked so hard to free the Jews from Egypt, there is no way he thought slavery was a good thing. It was a fantastic answer, and it led us to a great talk about how people could see different things with the same set of words. That, to me, is the kind of “what do you think?” that we are missing in our history classrooms.
So, how do we get this back? I think there are some changes to the way primary school textbooks are written that could be helpful, and perhaps make the job even easier for those putting together these texts. I’ll posit some of those in my next post.