Insulting The Past

The first time a parent challenged my teaching in history class, took place my first year. The topic concerned the creation of the Constitution, and the era of the Early Republic. I introduced the three branches, and separation of powers, census, representation, 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 the sliding scale of historic facts, and that initial chill of suppression stopped me in my tracks. Following that episode, censorship never strayed far from my thoughts. It was the beginning of a caution that lasted the whole of my career.

Fast forward 30 years in history education, when a similar event repeated.

The topic this time concerned 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, etc . . .

Foreign policy topics covered Central America and the Middle East, particularly Nicaragua and Iran. Reagan officials were selling weapons to America’s enemy Iran, using the funds to put down a Marxist insurgency in Nicaragua. A privatized foreign policy if you will.

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 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. 

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

Touchy parents revising America’s story to force their current politics on schools does nothing less than highjack education. Talented people leave the classroom endangering the US’s most essential institution. Worse, the exertions and sacrifice of those who came before, are papered over to suit today’s furor.

America’s lifeblood is our shared story, it’s what defines us as a distinct people. We must understand those central principles from our past to move forward as a nation.

To those students whose parents challenged the historic record, it’s unfortunate they cannot let go, just a little and trust public education. This is our kids birthright.

And know this-I wasn’t lying.

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.

One comment on “Insulting The Past

  1. Frederic Abt says:

    Sad. This highlights how important it is to teach the reality of past events so they can function effectively in the present and hopefully set the conditions for a better future.

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