Bad People are Afraid of the Study of History—And they should be!

In the midst of a horrible pandemic: A former US president, several national political congressional leaders, some US governors, and several state legislators seem to have a lot of time on their hands because they are expending tremendous amounts of obsessive time and energy frantically trying to restrict the teaching of a graduate/law school level “theoretical approach to teaching history” that does not exist in any state’s PreK-12 curriculum standards or requirements.

A partial simple answer in explaining their motivation is that they are cynically appealing to the limbic base of their voting base’s racial-tribal emotions. But an additional larger political objective is that they know “liberals/progressives” (as is their history) would not be able to resist snacking on a distracting bait hooked to a non-existent problem.
Alas, all good and true pedagogy, in all content areas, is questioning, probing, revealing, and yes, analytically critical “by nature.” This intellect-building way of teaching and learning is designed to act as an agent of knowledge progress and as an upsetting force against anti-progress ignorance.
However, pro-incognizance is a losing political strategy because, in our internet age, every historical fact is easily electronically searchable (e.g., Smithsonian’s Digital Archives, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, etc.); and for every book that is banned and burned, that same book is read and shared in exponential numbers by people who may have otherwise not picked that book up.

Human History (there it is) informs us that we are “organically wired” to explore every unknown internal and external space we encounter. When there is an informational “discovery,” we are inclined to explore further into other unknown but needing-to-learn spaces. History (there it is again) also teaches us that many have tried to legislate against human enlightenment and intellectual evolution in the past. Yet, they have all eventually failed.

Recently, for the first time since I retired as a school superintendent, I actually found myself (while watching a YouTube video) feeling sorry for a group of school board members who were pleadingly and desperately trying to explain to an angry crowd that was raining accusatory curses and denunciations down on their heads; that they could not vote against a “Critical Race Theory Curriculum” in the district, because such a curriculum does not exist in the district! The good news is that the unscholarly mob at that school board meeting and similar mobs nationally can’t stop (remember the “teaching evolution” wars; see “Scopes Trial”), those highly-effective teachers, specifically history, science, and english teachers, from teaching the truth about the world and the world of truthful human history.

This extra-energy of information suppression (interestingly paralleling voter suppression) efforts against a theoretical form of historiography raise an essential question about the motives of the history-deniers: “What are they hiding?” The answer to that question is perhaps summed up in two words the truth! The truth is the antagonist enemy of the lie, the anti-falsehood, the natural opponent of inaccurate and inauthentic past storylines. The truth points out past unfairness, bad behaviors, and moments of individual and national moral cowardice. There is a K-12 pedagogical authentic approach to the teaching of American history that bravely engages (with grade and age-appropriate methods) the complex and perhaps “uncomfortable” truths of US history. And then there is the cowardly low-expectations approach to misteaching history by using deceitful dodges and unpleasant (to some) omissions. The true and honest history approach holds a high level of academic expectations by assuming that if students are presented with historical facts that suggest that their country is not perfect, and like all nations, is a work in progress, they will not become unpatriotic citizens or “lose a respect perspective” for a historical figure who was revealed to be, well, like all of us—human.

A nation’s history is complex, and human beings are complex; therefore, any serious study of human beings and human history will often be complicatedly “messy” in an interesting and thought-provoking way; consequently, these studies require a systematically analytical approach.
Then there is the problem of young people at some point (and they surely will) uncovering the history-of-lies we’ve taught them, but then not having the “scaffolding” guidance of a classroom teacher, who can knowingly, sensitively, and professionally ease them into a more productive and nuanced understanding of historical events and people. Historical life was complicated, present life is complicated, the future life our young people will engage in will be complicated, so don’t we want them to be properly prepared for that future?
For example, presenting “historical figures” like: Abraham Lincoln, Margaret Sanger, Martin Luther King, etc., as uncomplicated, flawless models-of-perfection not only removes the humanity of these individuals, but it also removes the opportunity for students to gain access to a deep and rigorous understanding of the complexity of the human species; and thus a better understanding of their own complex humanity.

Legislating “backwardness” in the vast scope of human history is a doomed effort in the long term, even as it can inflict severe short-term intellectual damage on many children. But it is also a failed effort because it undermines the very reason and purpose of education, which is to draw the innate personal wisdom out of students, as we also draw them closer to the wisdom of the world.
Any legislation designed to ban, for example, the teaching of the “Scientific Method” (observation, inquiry, hypothesis, investigation, experimentation, etc.), would require a simultaneous banning of the teaching of all science itself; since the methodological behavioral approaches to practicing science can’t be separated from the operational activities of acquiring the conceptual knowledge of science. This is also true in historiography (the study of history); one can’t separate critical analytical research methods from the information and knowledge that these intellectually authentic inquisitorial approaches produce. All PreK-12 professional educators (should) know that poor or inaccurate teaching and learning methodologies used in the study of any academic subject area will produce poor and inaccurate learning outcomes.

What these history-deniers are doing is not just the act of producing an inauthentic and delegitimized view of the American history story, the white-washing, wishing-away and watering-down of the reality of the US and global human historical events; is, in essence, a “dumbing-down” of the critical, complex and conceptualization learning skills that all children need to become intellectually empowered adults.

But there is a second malevolent motive on the part of our history-deniers, which is the weaponization of history.
We saw this on frighteningly full display with a nuclear-armed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bizarre, twisted, and grossly inaccurate presentation of a pre-and post-World War II European history lesson.
Putin’s “fictional history project” was strategically designed to justify a barbaric act of aggression against a sovereign nation (and no threat to him), Ukraine.
The actual 1930s Nazis (not those Ukrainians Putin claims are Nazis) perfected this art of creative history telling to justify one of the most devastatingly horrific periods in human history. The modern German people (unlike our US “confederacy worshipers”) to their moral and sensible credit, have gone to great lengths to denounce and restrict any modern movements, expressions, or symbols promoting Nazism; after all, that critical historical analysis taught them that they don’t want to go down that terribly destructive road again.

Ironically, a non-Putinistic, theoretical comparing and contrasting critical analysis of Russian history might, in fact, suggest that Mr. Putin and his enablers have more in common with the WWII Nazi forces and the Ukrainians look a lot like those heroic Russian forces that defended Stalingrad!

But Putinism, Nazism, bad acting autocratic dictators, dictator worshipers, and the proto-fascist or reactionary leaders in “democratic nations” all have much to fear from the accurate and analytical truth teaching and learning of history, after all, so much of their ideological reasoning, their personal and political survival, depends on lies. And so, the question is, not only what are they hiding, but also, what are they hiding from?

The Gilded Age: You can’t judge a TV series by its time period.

Why the study of history matters for young people…

I saw a trailer ad for The Gilded Age (TGA) before watching some other HBO film I can’t remember (don’t judge me, for I embrace my seniorhood). This was around the same time I read that a White police officer Kim Potter received a two-year insignificant prison sentence for killing an African-American named Daunte Wright during a traffic stop. It seemed that the low-level severity of her sentence matched the low-level of sensitive recognition of Mr. Wright’s humanity.
Her excuse for summarily executing Mr. Wright was that she mistook her gun for a taser, which led to her fatally shooting the victim.

Her rationale and the way the court system essentially excused her actions is a long-running tragic national series that we Black American’s have lived and watched, season after season, in horror since our first forced roles as enslaved persons in this country; and so, don’t mind us if we don’t buy Ms. Potter’s lame excuse or respect a judicial system that essentially exonerated and applauded her actions.

It’s hard enough to be a Black person (regardless of prominent stature, education, accomplishments, celebrity fame or money) in a 2022 America where you receive daily doses of subtle and overt denying dismissals, acts of demeaning disrespect (modern versions of the 1800s), and ultimately a potential or actual death by driving, walking, jogging, standing, or simply bird watching in a natural park. And so, I was in no mood to watch the more severe not-so-gilded age of suffering and trauma Black people faced twenty-five years or so after the civil war.
But my excellent NYC public education, and in particular my great high school history department experience (My 1960’s high school principal wrote the American History Regents State Exam Review Book—And, we had an African-American history elective course), triggered my historiography curiosity; it also helped that I (born in Harlem, raised in Brooklyn), found myself geographically curious about the many NYC places and landmarks that would be referenced and displayed in the show.

I cautiously watched season 1/episode 1 with my hand not too far away from the remote to be able to quickly switch it off at the first hint of a cringing “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ babies” scene.
To my educational nostalgia delight, the TGA was, in many ways, an exciting dramatic relearning of my high school NYC history and civics classes, and it did not hurt that the acting, writing, and cinematography were excellent.
But something else that was very interesting happened; I discovered that the Black characters in the 1880’s TGA were portrayed as complex, creative, dignified, and respectful people, and even more surprisingly (but sadly) strange, these TGA Black character portrayals were in many ways vastly superior to a lot of the modern stereotypical black minstrel-monstrosities we see on too many current TV shows.
And most importantly, because I can be a super-critical non-professional critic of all things art, I realized that I actually liked The Gilded Age’s artistic storytelling and visual presentation!
It seemed that I made a prejudgment error I’ve spent forty years warning students not to make; the proverbial mistake of “judging a book (art form, experience, person, etc.) by its cover or title”; only in this case I was the one making the wrong premature judgment about a TV program based on a “time period.”
In the after-episode “inside the episode” segments, I also learned that there are Black women who hold real influential power in the “behind-the-cameras” production side of TGA. For me, this “real-power” they exhibited is the real “representation” we so desperately need more of on TV and in films projects.

Well, I redeemed myself by binge watching every episode of TGA’s first season on Saturday evening (again, don’t judge my not-so-social life); and then the next day, I watched a modern expression of determined perseverance; with the concentration at every level, and not mere “representation” of Black women with the South Carolina University Women’s Basketball Team (SCUWBT) in action against Tennessee; they did not disappoint. And, oh, by the way, the critical lesson for this life-long learning educator is, in my professional and personal practices: Work hard and consistently well like the SCUWBT; and with things like The Gilded Age, always seek to understand fully; and when there is not a full or, there is a misunderstanding, seek to first Pedagogically Heal Thyself!

The Gilded Age; HBO drama series; Monday-9:PM— For educators: The TGA website contains some excellent history lesson “lesson resource prompts”…

Principals, (let’s start with this) if you really want to raise the self-esteem of Black students, then make them proficient academic performers!

“Change the joke and slip the yoke”—Ralph Ellison.

An often news media quoted “liberal education professor” once remarked “that what I was doing was not progressive education” in response to a very positive NY Times article on my (getting kids to successfully pass NYS Regents exams) work as a principal of Science Skills Center High School, Bklyn NY. Of course, many people took offense to his remarks, but my favorite “apologia” was offered by one of my esteemed mentors Dr. Asa Hilliard who said: “Michael’s students are always progressing academically, and so why is it not “progressive education!”

It’s very easy for school-based educators to get distracted and taken “off mission” by outside gibberish. Part of the problem is that everyone who had a K-12 experience is thoroughly convinced that they absolutely know how public schooling should be executed. For sure, we have opened this “everybody has the answer door” by refusing to adopt an ethical “prime directive” that places student needs over adult comfort and employment needs, a no excuses, no blaming parents, communities, or poverty for the reasons we fail to effectively educate so many children (and yet succeed at sending so many of them to prison).

We can also get distractedly caught up in the larger societal political debates (e.g., integration) that have nothing to do with what a school-based team of educators is facing and are required to do for those students arriving to their school building every day. We educators can’t bring societal racial integration into reality, solve the problems of a broken national immigration system, eliminate poverty, etc. All that we can do is educate the young people sitting in our schools to the best of our courage and abilities. But for too many “liberal” or “conservative” actors, public education is a platform for political war games; however, for the dedicated professional educators working in the trenches, it’s their life work and sacred called service. After all, real (not theoretical) children’s lives are at stake, and we must protect them from the collateral learning damage that various political warring factions would inflict on them.

This is why I say let the governors and state legislative opponents of human progress pass all of the anti (does not exist in any state curriculum) “Critical Race Theories” (CRT) laws they want. Let these same lovers of history ignorance seek to block the analytical teaching of our nation’s complex (sometimes joyful and sometimes painful) historical story. Teaching historical “lies” or omitting “unflattering” or uncomfortable for some citizens events; means removing the necessary scientific approach to the study of history; this action will ultimately educationally damage all students regardless of racial identity or ethnicity and destroys public education’s credibility. And just like we can’t help if some folks are unnerved because we can’t “low-ball” the age of our planet to fit their theology; we also can’t construct a historiography that avoids the “difficult” to acknowledge events of the past. Further, historical-truth-telling builds moral character; learning about those horrendous Japanese internment camps of the 1940s can lead students to not repeat such an act when they become policy-deciding adults. Educationally speaking (as is the case with mathematics education), any acquisition level of content knowledge can’t be built on a previous premise of untruths incorrect or false information.

If “professional commentators” want to duel-it-out on the editorial pages of major newspapers and on cable news programs about a topic (e.g., CRT) that again does not exist in any state’s curriculum, let them have at it! Professional educators need to stay focused on what we need to do with and for our in-the-present-moment students. We can start with staying out of the “mess” that other people create. As a principal, I shut out all of the “political posturing” outside noise that most often had nothing to do with why my Title 1 school students showed up (and their parents sent them) every day, which was to improve their life chances through the formal educational experience. Our first professional, ethical task then is to ensure that our students are academically “whole,” viable, and proficient by providing them with a (yes, standards based and beyond) rigorous learning foundation that we efficaciously make happen. This means that they are proficient and above in all academic content areas, from reading skills to research skills. And any school that fails at that primary objective is sadly engaged in some form of miseducational theater.
My position as a superintendent vis-à-vis my principals was this: “Yes, by all means, have nice Black History Month programs, but I also want your students to make their own “modern history” by becoming high academic achievers!”

Principals should listen to their own professional-pedagogical instincts, suggesting that: The quickest, surest, and most sustainable path to raising any student’s self-esteem is to help them become strong practicing proficiency participants in this experience we call schooling. You then double-down on their high academic capabilities by approaching all curriculum content areas by way of authenticity, diversity, honesty, and truth. The best principals know how to accomplish this feat without using “fancy” slogans or phraseologies that could become the political weapons of any outside-of-the-school-building battle groups, whose conflicts are often the enemy of real educational progress and success.