November 30, 2021

The Distance We Must Still Travel

By Stephen Tuttle | Nov. 13, 2021

There was certainly more than one reason Democrat Terry McAuliffe lost his gubernatorial race in Virginia. But many think the tipping point in that campaign occurred when McAuliffe had the temerity to say this: “I don't think parents should be telling schools what they should teach ... .”

It turned out quite a few Virginia parents believed they should be telling schools what to teach. Some even suggested panels of parents should decide entire K-12 public school curricula.

That would be folly. Modern public education is fertile ground for all manner of complaints, but those complaining are in no way qualified to make things better. Schools have expanded somewhat beyond readin', writin' and arithmetic. Do we really think people, most without any training or background in education at all, are capable of preparing a curriculum that meets whatever elaborate state standards apply, plus the arts, career and college ready skills, computer science, English language arts, English language development standards, health, math, world history, American history, physical education, science, social studies, technology, world languages ... ?

Of course, that's not what the complaining parents actually want. What they want is veto power over the curriculum and anything they see as contrary to their own worldview. It's not the first time parents have risen up in anger over something they perceive as a subject that should be out of bounds for the classroom.

Decades ago we saw similar outrage when biology classes began teaching students about human reproduction. This is territory reserved for parents, they said, and it will result in promiscuity, disease, and unwanted pregnancies. It turned out to be somewhat ironic that ignorance, not information, was shown to be more likely to increase the least desirable outcomes for our teenagers.

Then we had howls of parental protest when some high schools began including literature and lessons that included non-traditional family units, complaints that continue today.

The latest surrounds race and an academic exercise called critical race theory (CRT) that is sometimes taught at universities and colleges. It posits that the U.S. Constitution and subsequent statutes were created specifically to create and perpetuate a white power elite at the expense of minorities. A rumor, proven false, that CRT was being taught in Virginia public schools circulated on social media and made its way into the campaign. In fact, CRT is not being taught at any K-12 public school in Virginia or Michigan, or anywhere else.

But some parents, boosted by politicians looking for a vote-getting edge, have conflated any history classes that include discussion of race and our racial history with CRT. They want to tell schools they can only teach a sanitized version. Or no version at all.

After all, they like to argue, we had the Civil War to end slavery, passed a constitutional amendment to abolish it, passed the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act, and the progress we've made is what's important.

(A cynic might point out that the Civil War cost us 700,000 lives; the Ku Klux Klan was founded the same year the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery was passed; the ensuing Jim Crow laws prevented Black Americans in the South from voting or owning property or marrying whom they wanted; public schools were legally segregated until 1954; the banks and mortgage companies prevented Black families from homeownership in all but well-defined Black neighborhoods; and, even now, there is growing membership and affiliation in organizations espousing white supremacy ideologies.) 

No doubt the progress is important, but if we don't teach and understand our history of racism, we can't expect to acknowledge and understand why it still exists. There is an unbroken continuum — from Christopher Columbus bringing the first African slaves to the Americas in the late 1490s to today's local high school students creating fantasy slave auctions of minority students. Some call that progress; still others don't want us to discuss it at all. 

While we have to agree a pretend slave auction is better than an actual slave auction, it is also symptomatic of how far we still have to go.

According to the FBI, as reported by local law enforcement agencies, there were more than 8,000 incidents of bias involving more than 11,000 victims in 2020, 61 percent of which were based on race, ethnicity, or national origin. According to the Anti Defamation League (ADL), 2020 was the third worst year for antisemitic attacks on people and property in the last 45 years. And reported near-record attacks on the Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders it represents.

Despite parental complaining, the facts of how we began, where we've been, and where we are now should be part of every curriculum. That should absolutely include the real and important progress we've made along the way but acknowledge the distance we must still travel before we live the self-evident truth that every person is created equal and should be treated equally.


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