Insulting The Past

The first time counter-factual history appeared in my teaching career happened at the beginning. The topic concerned the creation of the Constitution, and the era of the Early Republic. I introduced the three branches, and separation of powers, representation, census, and that type of basic information. Definitely the bare bones of civics. During that lesson I explained how Electors were determined, and role the Electoral College played in choosing the president. End of lesson. The following day the topic moved to ratification and the addition of the Bill of Rights. From out of nowhere a hand shot up, and an upset student blurted, “My dad says you’re a liar!”

Yep, a liar. 

That was my baptism into challenges to historic fact. That initial chill of censorship stopped me in my tracks. After that, the dangerous thought of editing the historic record to suit local politics never strayed far from my thoughts. It was the beginning of a concern that lasted throughout my career.

Fast forward 30 years to my winter years of history education, and another, similar event, repeated.

The topic was the Reagan Revolution, and the events surrounding those years. 

Students learned about the Evil Empire, “Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall,” Perestroika, Glasnost, Reaganomics, Laffer Curve, Trickle Down, or “Voodoo” Economics,” and Just Say No!  

In other foreign policy issues, Central America and the Middle East, stood out, particularly in El Salvador and Lebanon, involving mass murder in San Salvador, and kidnapping of westerners in Beirut. Finally, an explosion that killed 200 Marines marked Reagan’s withdrawal from Lebanon. 

The unit ended with Iran-Contra, and the election of George H.W. Bush in 1988.

The calls came the following day. “How could I teach such nonsense in a public school! My student came home and shared her notes, textbook and graphs. This is not right, Ronald Reagan is the beloved champion of conservatism!”

The principal called me in and wanted to know what caused the dust-up. Flustered, I didn’t know where to start. Quickly I explained the general outline of the unit, and, well, he didn’t have the time to listen to the factual details. And he shouldn’t have. He hired me to do that job.

The episode sort of blew over, though that parent did call me at home a number of times over that summer. Weird behavior for sure, like the dad couldn’t let it go. 

The past is a powerful harbinger that future presidents and policies have real-life repercussions. Truth matters. And in all honesty, I didn’t care what my students believed, they merely had to support those beliefs with evidence. But some patrons didn’t want those facts taught.

The matter became philosophical; either educators prepare kids for the path, or parents attempt to prepare that path for their kids.

Parents re-interpreting America’s stories to suit their political present, then foisting it on schools, does nothing less than insult those who came before, and highjacking America’s future. 

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are available on Kindle. Chumbley has also written two stage plays, “Clay,” regarding the life of Senator Henry Clay, and “Wolf By The Ears,” an exploration into American slavery.

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