Kerr: How we teach history is what is essential | Opinion


A recent Loudoun County School Board meeting was violently disrupted in part because of Critical Race Theory (CRT). I doubt that many protesters know exactly what it is, which is understandable as the CRT is ill-defined at best.

Moreover, it is not part of the approved curriculum in Virginia, nor in most other countries in the country, and it is unlikely to be the case. It’s a concept that dates back about 45 years, but in today’s busy political environment, this resurrected piece of academic theory has become a hot topic. That is, if it is even a problem. Sadly, its introduction into the political debate has convinced some that the states and the federal government are going to impose some kind of anti-American history teaching. That’s what they think of CRT.

It’s not going to happen. However, this raises questions about how we teach our own history.

I teach US government and politics at Commonwealth University of Virginia as well as state and local government. It is a joy. My classes are diverse – racially, ethnically and politically. I have students from China and the Middle East. From my perspective, teaching in this environment is stimulating and stimulating.

While CRT is not part of our curriculum, one thing we need to understand is that you cannot teach US government history or its history without including the unsavory parts.

When I was a member of the Stafford County School Board, we updated our textbooks to make them more honest about the past – in this case, slavery and the Jim Crow laws. It was important and no one opposed the changes. You cannot be proud of where you are and where you are going unless you know where you are from.

When I teach, I speak willingly, and with a lot of good support, about slavery, the Civil War (perhaps the most defining point in our history) and Jim Crow. Some might say that all of this is just liberal bashing of America. Barely.

How does the civil rights movement, a wonderful example of American courage and fortitude, make sense otherwise? The same can be said for the monumental decisions to desegregate the armed forces and, in the years that followed, to pass the Civil Rights Act. These are great achievements, but they mean nothing without understanding the story behind them – and, no, this story is not pretty.

What I try to convey in my classes, and what so many teachers try to share with their students, is that America is a work in progress. There are a lot of flaws, some particularly dark, but from those bad grades, many of which make reading uncomfortable, we always seemed to do better. We have listened to the best angels of our nature, we cast the crucial votes, our courts have made good decisions and we have changed our minds. And the best part is, we still do.

Yes, we easily embraced slavery – it was really wrong, and it left a terrible legacy that lasts to this day, but we waged a war to end it. We let Jim Crow be born, and then, finally, after too long a wait, we ended it.

The prominent people in our government and the rest of the economy, once the preserve of white men, whom I remember well from the early days of my career, now include African Americans, women, and other minorities.

Are we perfect? Barely. But the lesson I want to teach, and teach – and no one has told me otherwise – is that this work in progress, the United States of America, has made great strides. And you can’t appreciate those accomplishments or solve the outstanding issues unless you know the whole story.

This brings me to a memory. When I was an intelligence officer in the US Navy, I remember reading a rather long book called the Soviet Encyclopedia. It had a simple premise: Everything the Soviet Union did was for the benefit of mankind. There were no warts or blemishes. Of course, there were actually a lot. The history of the Soviet Union was truly horrible. It was humorous read, but generations of Soviets made a living from this stuff. Some in the former Soviet Union still do.

This is definitely not the way I want to share or help interpret American history.

David Kerr is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Virginia Commonwealth University and has worked on Capitol Hill and for various federal agencies for many years.

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