Perhaps you have seen or heard about in recent days the student and faculty protests in Jefferson County that stemmed in part from a proposal by the school board to change the history curriculum. These changes would emphasize the superiority of the Free Market, as well as the good of patriotism, while also emphasizing the evils of civil dissent and protest, and generally minimizing the negative aspects of American History.
There are several major problems with this attempted change. Putting aside the obvious fact that America was founded in an unprecedented combination of civil dissent, violent protest, and law breaking, or that the documents created to both announce its birth and to guide it through the years gave the right to and need for dissent and protest highest billing, the major problem with the minimization of the negative aspects of history is that it’s essentially self defeating.
Minimizing the negative aspects of history because those elements might be uncomfortable to hear or may not align with your ideal means that the mistakes of the past are not heard, recognized, or analyzed, which sets up those very same mistakes. History, in short, repeats itself, and the very same mechanism that is put in place to minimize the negative aspects of history is the same mechanism that allows those mistakes to keep happening.
Make no mistake: America’s history is full of great men and women, of technical triumph, industrial might and material prosperity, and an almost unheard of degree of guaranteed personal and religious liberty. At the same time, America’s past is also full to the brim with racism, intolerance, and narrow self-interest. The highest form of patriotism should acknowledge the former but also analyze the latter to keep us grounded, to keep us striving, and most importantly, to keep us accountable.
In Jefferson County, it appears that the protest has largely worked, and that the resolution will be scaled back, at least for the time being. But this is only the preliminary round in what looks like a long fight. The curriculum changes sought by JeffCo’s School Board were not an original idea. The resolution came from a Republican National Committee resolution. In other words, this is going to be a national issue. Crucially, all of this is happening in an environment where things are changing faster than ever before, and the coming years will define America for decades.
The temptation to look back to the past as a mythical golden age is also tempting, as is the suggestion that all we need to do is start abiding by the standards of bygone eras to arrive at the same sort of golden age. However, this sort of rose-colored view of history is unproductive at best, obstructionist at worst.
Time, so far as we know, only works in one direction, and all of the contexts that informed the past are now changed, which means that we must change as well. In short, a movement towards living as our forefathers lived will not usher in an era of prosperity, but rather one of dysfunction. Instead, we must build out from what our forefathers left us with, and to correct the flaws in their work.
It is up to us to recognize that progress must have its way, that American history has left us with room to grow and develop, that it is not perfect, and that we can do better.
It is up to us to break the cycle of mistakes in this country, not by pretending it never happened, but instead looking at how and why it happened. It won’t always be pleasant, but it will be worthwhile.
Collegian Columnist Jesse Carey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @junotbend