Education stands out as one of the many casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic, and not just for the reasons we would suspect.
Children of all ages, along with students in higher education, either missed a lot of classes, or had to switch to remote learning, or both. That takes a toll: despite the arguments of online advocates, most students will learn better in the classroom than in their pajamas.
Not that I haven’t seen undergraduate students walking to class in their pajamas, but that’s another story.
Perhaps the biggest toll is that a tidal wave of parents who like the status quo became more aware of what their children were learning. They didn’t like it, and joined political hucksters in making it a divisive issue.
The biggest bone of contention has to do with what children learn about issues of race in American history, and in the present.
People my age recall how many private schools opened back in the 1960s and 70s, many of them claiming to be “Christian,” whose only purpose was to provide a lily-white educational setting. Parents didn’t want their children exposed to those bothersome Black kids, or (horrors!) to Black teachers or administrators in positions of authority.
White flight was not limited to 50 years ago, of course. Today, many state governments pay for private school education through education vouchers, or through funding charter schools designed to offer a happier option for parents who think their neighborhood schools aren’t up to snuff.
I don’t suggest that all charter schools have racist intentions and certainly none will admit it, but in our state, at least, it’s an issue. In North Carolina, government-funded charter schools don’t have to provide free or subsidized meal plans for poor students, nor do they have to provide bus transportation. Voila! Very few Black or Hispanic students – or poorer white children – have the wherewithal to attend.
But all of that is an aside to the issue of what children learn in public schools. Many parents just don’t want their children to learn some of the most painful but also formative aspects of our history.
When I studied American history in junior high and high school, we learned about the dark period of slavery and how that led to the great tragedy of the Civil War. There was no particular emphasis on how appalling chattel slavery was, however. We didn’t learn about the horrific conditions on slave ships where thousands died, or the inhuman beatings, rapes, and other abuses heaped upon slaves by their “masters” and paid slave drivers.
Nor did we learn that some of our great American heroes, like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, gained their wealth on the backs of slaves that they bought and sold and held captive.
Perhaps the most important thing we didn’t learn, however, was how to see the many connections between the days of slavery and how people of power – predominantly southern white men – connived to deconstruct the Reconstruction and maintain a system in which Black people, though technically free, remained oppressed.
And it wasn’t just the Jim Crow era of lynching and the KKK and erecting Confederate monuments. Freed slaves started out with no capital to speak of, and most had little option other than to work as poorly paid hired labor or sharecroppers. Their children sometimes had even less. But for many years, banks wouldn’t loan them money – and banks continue to turn down a disproportionately high percentage of Black customers today.
Local governments kept schools segregated and unequal in funding or opportunity. Black people were relocated to “government housing” to open new areas for more expensive developments.
That’s not to mention a justice system that has betrayed its name for decades, incarcerating countless young men of color on minor or false charges and stealing potentially the most productive years of their lives.
Children should learn that all these things figure into the difficulties Black people face today, for they both inherit a system of endemic inequality and societal prejudice from which there seems little hope for escape.
But I didn’t learn that in school, and many of today’s parents don’t want their children to learn it, either. So, they have turned school board meetings into free-for-alls, while right-wing politicians feed on the frenzy to promote their chances of (re)election.
Whether we call it “Critical Race Theory” or “telling the truth” or “connecting the dots,” there is an ongoing dark side to our history that young people should know. Rather than protecting white students from feeling ashamed of the broken systems we have all inherited, we should allow them to feel as well as to know how badly we have failed to live up to our nation’s stated values.
There’s little chance of children experiencing PTSD from honest history lessons, but there is a good possibility that recognizing the wrongness of our past and its connection to our present might motivate concern for a better future.
School curricula should not be designed to mask past ugliness or gloss over guilt, but to help children become more informed citizens, better equipped to shape a more just society.
We need to teach the truth, and let the students learn.