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Throughout history, parents and teachers have heard a question from their children and students. A question that allows further exploration of ideas and facilitates discussion to gain a greater understanding of complex topics.
Sometimes the answers are easy (“Vegetables will help you grow big and strong.”) other times, answers are complex. As a teacher and parent, I want to answer the question honestly. To give my kids available information and teach them skills to analyze that info. If we want our kids to have a depth of understanding, they need more than one side of the story.
Lately, we have seen social media posts, news stories, speeches and legislation working to make it harder to provide students with alternative perspectives to the traditional curriculum. These share a common claim that teaching these perspectives is unpatriotic, a harbinger of the downfall of our civilization.
They don’t want students to learn about parts of the American story that have often been glossed over, edited out or willfully forgotten.
Students need to see themselves in the history of their country. For many of us, the story of our ancestors starts well before 1776. Black history didn’t begin in 1619, yet what do we learn of the African civilizations that thrived before colonization? The stories of this land’s Indigenous peoples are pushed aside for romantic stories of westward expansion and manifest destiny. The plunder and eradication of people in Central and South America is a footnote in the story of European exploration.
Why are the stories of colonizers and conquerors more important than stories of the colonized and subjugated? Why are the heroes of our American history protected from enlightened scrutiny? Why is questioning the historical narrative perceived as an attack on the foundation of our nation?
Is it because we don’t like to see our heroes in unflattering ways? Does it make people uncomfortable that the heroes they idealize were not perfect? Is it that the “greatness of America” was great for a very small subset of people at the expense of others?
The powerful have often reaped benefits from losses of the less powerful. Giving a voice to those who lost may take away from the mythology of the self-made country that pulled itself up by its bootstraps. There are many things to be proud of in our history, but there are shadows of regret and shame that also must be learned, must be taught.
We deserve the truth. Not just one version of a story. We deserve to hear from the people who were there, reading the accounts of the winners and those who were defeated. Our country needs to be willing to acknowledge the unpleasantness, the crimes, the atrocities, that have long been ignored and recognize the pain that endures because of them. We need to be OK with having uncomfortable conversations about unpleasant topics. We have to recognize that there may not be any easy answers or fast resolution to societal and systemic problems. That doesn’t mean we don’t try.
The work must be done, and it is not the responsibility of the oppressed to convince their oppressor to change. It is up to all of us to recognize and identify those who benefit from the systems and power structures that have endured for hundreds of years.
We need to call out those who are actively trying to stop people from learning truths while passing laws to take the right to vote, plotting to redistrict communities to reduce representation and dismantling funding for public services and schools.
Because the powerful are threatened by the potential of the powerless. They will do everything they can to make sure that we are underrepresented, underfunded, over-policed and undereducated. They are afraid that questioning of these power structures will begin to dismantle the systems that fill their pockets. They are afraid of learning the truth about our history — our shared history — because they are afraid of what they may find.
Some of the heroes in the history books were villains and tyrants in versions of the stories that are rarely heard. Our country owes a debt to the people who helped to build it but who are never recognized for their contributions. There are cultural and community heroes across this country that are honored locally but who will not be included in textbooks.
The stories and histories of all people should be accessible to students, not just in Black History, Hispanic Heritage, AAPI Heritage or Pride months. Our stories are important every day, all year.
Because our stories are American history, too.
If someone doesn’t think so, you should be asking “Why?”
Nicolo Onorato is an MPS teacher and parent.