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?

First, they went after the uncomfortable truths of US history related to Native, Latino, and Black Americans… Then they went after the uncomfortable truths of my own history.

“A school district in Tennessee banned the use of “Maus,” a Pulitzer-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, in its middle school classes, citing the work’s profanity and nudity in a 10-to-0 vote.”—Washington Post

The problem of proto-fascist movements as they evolve into full fascist movements is that they ultimately have no limits; in the end, there is them, and then there are victims. There are no “prior agreements” they feel honor-bound to respect. Their normal routine is the extreme acts of personal and the people’s democratic rights disqualification. Their ideology is the full universal expansion of horrific ideas. Book banning paves the way for book burning. Book burning is the rehearsal stage for people burning. Honest historical deniability is linked to economic exploitation and will always lead to some form of human negation. Today it’s the otherization of Mexicans; the next day, it’s the next in line “others” who will be relegated to a place of denigration and dismissal. It’s not a matter of if; it’s only a matter of when your turn will arrive.

The national GOP effort to deny and restrict Black voter participation is a rehearsal to expand those disenfranchisement efforts to those segments of White America who have maintained some ethical concerns about wanting to see their nation “Great” (pre-civil rights era) again. Doing the right thing should not require that the evil being done is being done to you.

There is a reason that history is both a target and tool of depraved and diabolical leaders. They are highly skilled in the art of transforming a real or imagined “grievance” into organized and politically sanctioned self-destructive acts of hateful hooliganism and malicious mob violence, and ultimately, verbal and physical violence as a vehicle to obtain (by legitimate or fraudulent means) elected political power. History will expose them in their earlier historical iterations and could serve as a moral inoculant that could prevent these proto-fascist from philosophically reinfecting us in our own historical periods. But a collective courageous and principled personality is needed as opposed to a “not-my-problem” attitude.

False glorification (a right-wing personality disorder) can, if not countered, be an effective tool of human nullification. The symbols of the southern confederacy are, in fact, symbols of false hope for those who wish to see the official authorization of discrimination, exploitation, and no consequences acts of violence against Black Americans. One then is forced to ask: “What exactly is it that ‘conservatives’ are trying to conserve?”… If it’s an age of exploitation, then the only rational and righteous response of the targets of exploitation is resistance!

The great myth of this world was tragically explained by the words and sacrifices of people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer (The Cost of Discipleship). The lie we are told and sold is that we can look away from the suffering and pain of the “not me,” not my family, nationality, religious affiliation, community, or nation. That I can somehow strike a separate peace bargain with the human elements of evil. The dynastic nature of evil (did we not learn anything from the history of German Nazism) is not satiated until all of humanity is under the power and pain of its wicked rule. And thus the reason they seek to prevent the positive power of true-history-telling; which provides every one of us with a way into realizing our full compassionate humanity; we only need to read (and be moved to action by) the words of a contemporary and fellow 1930’s German clergymen of Bonhoeffer, Martin Niemöller:

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”