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Chuck Haga: History must include the good and the bad

Must teachers shy away from asking high school sophomores to consider how the author of “all men are created equal” could own slaves? What of McCarthyism? Internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II?

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Chuck Haga is a columnist for the Grand Forks Herald. (Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)

The first time I left the Herald, in 1976, it was partly because I realized I didn’t know enough. I was acutely aware of gaping holes in my education (still am, for that matter), so I quit the paper and went back to school.

I wanted to study history, to get a better idea of how we got to be who we were, and the two years spent working on a master’s degree were among the best of my life.

But trying to understand what went so terribly wrong in the mid-20th century, I had to wrestle with World War I. And to understand the coming of the Great War, I had to keep going back – to the rise of nationalism, imperialism and colonialism, to the French Revolution, to the Renaissance. I knew I needed to keep going back, to Rome and Greece and beyond, but after two years the university handed me a degree and I went off to Norway to try to understand why my father left there for America a century ago.

All along the way, I was reading our American history, too – from Columbus and “discovery” to expansion to dominance on the world stage. I learned that Jefferson was not perfect. Nor was Lincoln. The great settlement of the West was not exclusively heroic.

The Legislature last week approved and the governor signed into law a bill that prohibits the teaching in K-12 schools of “critical race theory,” a line of inquiry developed for law schools that examines what’s been called the codification or embedding of racism in U.S. law and society.

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Debate that as you will, but it is not taught today in any North Dakota K-12 schools. The law is “more preemptive to try to make sure that it doesn’t come to our schools,” Sen. Donald Schaible, R-Mott, said. Critical race theory would promote a skewed version of history, he and other backers of the ban say. It is an assault on patriotism.

“It’s a red herring,” Sen. Erin Oban, D-Bismarck, countered. “It’s the definition of culture wars, which most of us claim to hate.”

Oban said outrage over critical race theory – whatever it is – has been stoked and fanned by cable news, taking advantage of the fears and uncertainties of our times. It isn’t serious policy, and it substitutes for difficult but necessary conversations.

Speaking as a former teacher, mother and “an unwavering advocate of the purpose and importance of public education,” Oban said the “manufactured outrage” about critical race theory infuriated her. “Facts don’t seem to matter anymore when they counter talking points that feed our own fears and confirm our own biases.” The ban is “yet another attempt to put public education, educators, and students in the crosshairs of an increasingly toxic political environment.”

How are teachers of history to abide by this law? Must they shy away from asking high school sophomores to consider how the author of “all men are created equal” could own slaves? What of McCarthyism? Internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II?

Wounded Knee? Selma and Birmingham? Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers?

The debate over how U.S. history is taught in our schools began long before the New York Times’ recent 1619 Project, which aimed to make the history and consequences of slavery a central focus of U.S. history. After the Civil War, “Northern and Southern states continued to fight, this time about how to talk about the Civil War in schools,” Olivia B. Waxman wrote last year in Time.

In 1917, some educators talked about removing the Declaration of Independence from schoolbooks “to foster no animosity against our ally, England,” Waxman wrote, and she cited a bill passed in the 1930s by the Oregon State Senate, allegedly dominated by the Ku Klux Klan, prohibiting the use of any textbook that “speaks slightingly of the founders of the republic.” She noted controversy over a popular series of textbooks in the late 1930s and early ‘40s “that asked children to consider whether the U.S. was living up to its founding ideals.”

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This is a great country, the right says. It could be, the left responds.

In Waxman’s piece, historian Adam Laats asks, “Is the point of history class to introduce young Americans to their heritage of heroes, the glories of American history? Or is history class supposed to make young people into critical examiners of their society, a true civic education that teaches American young people to question every bit of received wisdom and be ready to change what needs changing?”

We should celebrate 1776. Young people should learn and recite the Gettysburg Address and honor “the greatest generation” that pulled us out of the Depression and defeated fascism. But our national origin story needs to include 1619, and we need to understand and acknowledge that some of the most dedicated champions of freedom and democracy were people who initially were not part of it but fought to be included.

Chuck Haga had a long career at the Grand Forks Herald and the Minneapolis Star Tribune before retiring in 2013. He can be contacted at crhaga@gmail.com.

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