MORRIS: Who owns the history?

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Leo Morris

The Kokomo Tribune has published a fascinating story about teachers-in-training at Indiana State University and their nearly universal disapproval of proposed state legislation that would limit how race and other topics are treated in the classroom.

Some of their comments are quite revealing.

“If we attempt to teach history without controversy, then we will not be able to teach at all,” said one prospective teacher who wanted to impart the sins of Andrew Jackson.

“It concerns me that this is even being proposed because why would we not want our kids to know about the bad things that happened in the past,” said another, who likes to draw parallels between McCarthyism and how LGBTQ people have been treated.

If the bill passes, said a third, it’s like, “oh, I can’t teach history correctly, the way I’ve been taught it.”

Two things can be inferred from these comments.

1. It is accepted beyond dispute that what Hoosier legislators want to do is create a history curriculum with all the bad stuff left out. Make no mention of slavery or Jim Crow or the treatment of Native Americans or women’s struggle for equality or anything else that will make the U.S. seem less than perfect.

But this is clearly a deliberately distorted slam against lawmakers. What they are attempting, in their usual clownishly bungling way, is to balance the overly negative views of America being filtered into classrooms.

2. These future teachers really, really, really are eager to get into those classrooms and start teaching all the bad stuff. They can keep telling us there is no nasty, old Marxist-inspired critical race theory in Indiana classrooms (nothing to see here, move along, move along), but obviously its rotten-to-the-core view of this country has taken hold.

But perhaps I am being just as unfair to these prospective teachers as I think they are being to legislators. Maybe they also want balance, an honest look at both the good and bad in our history.

We are in an epic struggle over who owns the past, and our schools are the front lines of that struggle. We can no longer pretend that we are done with the past, that it will behave and stay put where it belongs. Whoever controls the past owns the future.

Even when we can agree on events to put in and events to leave out, reach a consensus on when and where the which happened and who said what about it, we will stumble on the why it happened and how it matters today. For that, we must bring to bear the default assumptions and baseline principles of our own worldview.

I can’t remember why, but recently I found myself delving into the Magna Carta. I found a lot of articles about how overblown its reputation has become – the fact that it was never really followed, was rescinded within a year, was not the first time a king had given up power, and on and on. But I also found plenty of information about its influence, how it cemented the idea of due process of law, how it moved Great Britain to its system of common law, how inspired some of the founders of this nation.

Accepting all of the good and bad as accurate, it is up to me to decide whether and where I would place the Magna Carta on humankind’s journey from tyranny to freedom. If I had children in school, that’s what I would want from their teachers – all the good and bad, along with the intellectual tools to put events into perspective.

And I understand how hard that is for teachers to do, considering the different ways they are pulled by so many interest groups. I don’t think I could do it. Most of the future teachers in the Tribune story said something like, “We should just be left alone to teach.”

But teach what on whose behalf? I know I’ve said this so often some are getting sick of it, but we’ll never decide that until we decide as a society what this country is and should stand for.

One student teacher in the story said that “if parents want to control what their children learn, then perhaps they should … take it upon themselves to maybe home school their child or place them in a private school.” That was the most honest comment in the whole story.

And, alas, perhaps an indication of where we are headed.

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at [email protected].