On Teaching Hard History

Idaho State Legislature just passed what is being called a “controversial education bill”. It states that “HB 377 would prevent Idaho teachers and administrators from discussing any sort of belief system that claims racism or sexism are responsible for past actions in history with students. It would also prohibit any conversations claiming one group of people defined by their sex, ethnicity or race are better than or less than any other.” This isn’t a controversial bill. This is an attack on education, on truth, on history, and on critical thinking in general.

I had a student today mention that history seems to only highlight “the bad things” today. I squashed that quickly. I responded if I was going to write a history of my day today, would I include just the good, just the bad, or both? They responded that they would include more good than bad, because the good always outweighs the bad. I bluntly said “then you would have an incomplete and false history of the day.” The student seemed stunned by this. You see, history is a record. Who writes the record is one thing, but a complete history tells a complete story.

Human beings are complex, contradictory individuals. We exist in nuance, not inherently good or bad. We do things on that spectrum. History is nuanced. It’s okay to teach a history that tells the truth that patriarchy, supremacy, and colonialism are part of our story. Because it’s true. It’s why we are at a breaking point in this country. It’s why we still have people asking to be treated as equal human beings. It’s why our country has the 2A. It’s why I statistically make more than female colleagues. It’s why we teach dead white male heroes, instead of a mix of multi gender, multi racial, complex individuals.

If you teach a history that only is good things, they call that story exceptionalism. It’s why we have confederate flags, it’s why we believe we are the most important country to exist ever, it’s why we believed it was divine right to conquer the globe. It’s flat out false.

This has me irked, obviously. But I will happily be fired before I teach any student a false narrative of history, because it will only doom our future. It’s okay to have baggage with our story. It’s okay to have to deal with hard facts. It’s okay to learn to be better.

History is a story of oppressor vs oppressed, and the oppressed often is left out of the continuing narrative. It’s assimilation and extermination, be it through culture, through language, through art, or through human bodies.

We have to reconcile with our past if we are ever going to progress. We have to teach our students to think critically, to understand the complexity of human beings, of civilization, of cultures, and the repeated misunderstanding of these things. This isn’t liberal brainwashing, this is simply teaching students to not take the world at face value. It’s teaching them to think for themselves, to understand that it’s okay to exist in nuance, and that we must always look at the entire picture — and if that picture is skewed, we must adjust our lens in order to breathe in the entire frame.

Educator. Author.

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