Change in education goals used to come slowly. Since the 1960s, it’s generally come from federal law and Supreme Court rulings. But today, political polarization and social media clashes have devolved decision-making to debate. 

We live in civic turmoil that reaches every part of society — even into how children are taught our nation’s history. Here in Kansas our educators and their curriculum are being unfairly pilloried by both the left and right in the cultural war over the teaching of U.S.  history.

President Trump weighed in during the first presidential debate, recapping his Sept. 17 Constitution Day speech when he characterized demonstrations against racial injustice as “rioting and mayhem ... a direct result of decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools.” 

His speech singled out The New York Times Magazine 1619 Project as an example of far-left propaganda. The Pulitzer prize-winning series argues that the enslavement of Africans is central to understanding our country’s founding and that the nation’s foundational principles are deeply tied to racial oppression. To negate the Marxists’ viewpoint he sees being taught, the president announced a 1776 commission to promote a curriculum that celebrates the greatness of America. 

It’s not the first time that critics have argued for a different version of history. For example, during the “Red scare” of the 1920s, schools also were accused of teaching Marxist propaganda. Alternatively, critical race theory that emphasized racial and economic injustice flourished in the 1960s.

All history consists of narrative accounts, emerging from writers’ perspectives. History’s value is in accurately explaining events, and that singular purpose hasn’t always been honored in teaching our nation’s history. 

No student in my late 1960s Norman (Oklahoma) High School classes learned of the Tulsa race riot because I didn’t know about it, despite the fact I was a native Oklahoman, University of Oklahoma graduate and a licensed U.S. history teacher. I learned about the riot many years later and I wasn’t the only teacher in that situation.   

Glossing over unsavory parts of U.S. history in the name of patriotism doesn’t uphold our nation’s core values; neither does concentrating on our country’s failures.  

The 1619 Project deserved the Pulitzer but neither journalism nor a presidential commission should underwrite a curriculum belief system. Legally, what is taught in public schools is the purview of local school boards based on state policy and federal law. Kansas’ U.S. history curriculum standards and social studies standards for early grades are fact-based and can be reviewed on the Kansas State Department of Education website. 

As for Kansas teachers being Marxists or far-left agitators, just think about those you often see — attending church, baseball games, 4-H meetings — hardly revolutionaries. As Kansas curriculum requires, the history of First Amendment rights and peaceful dissent is taught but not as an attempt to indoctrinate Marxism or any other ideology.

Students need to learn about the Tulsa race riot, the Cherokee Trail of Tears and other shameful events in our history. Students also need to learn how America became a world beacon of freedom and democracy and to embrace our country without ignoring its negative aspects. Kansas teachers instill patriotism by bringing students to a nuanced understanding of their country’s complex history, one that honors its greatness and, despite its failings, can achieve the goal of liberty and justice for all. 

 

Sharon Hartin Iorio is dean emerita Wichita State University College of Education.

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