Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Integrity Means Teaching the Truth

Alternatively Titled: This Country was Built on the Backs of Slaves

Bear with me while I climb up on my soapbox for a minute here.

There are many things I love about our annual class trip to Washington, DC: the symbolism of the monuments, the architecture, the gorgeous photographs in the Museum of Natural History, the naive idealism that used to be politics, evident in the video presentation preceding the tour of the Capitol Building...

But in the last couple years, I've been more and more bothered by the conspicuous absence of any worthwhile discussion of the real "founding" of America.
There is brief talk of slavery when we visit Mount Vernon and explore the slave quarters, but it does not come up again on the trip. I don't know how to explain what I'm feeling here...Slavery is covered so superficially and in such a way that the reputation of the Founding Fathers is protected. I don't want our 13-year-old students to hear graphic details of slave auctions and rape and abuse but I wish they could hear some objective truth to clarify that these men were flawed human beings, not omniscient gods, not mythical, untouchable legends, and we should take care not to idolize people.

But it seems that any sort of criticism makes one unpatriotic...and apparently that is the worst thing you could be.

There is a profound discomfort as our guide tells us to look left and right at various buildings as we drive by but remains silent as we pass the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, drawing no attention to it.

There is no mention at all of the genocide that had to be orchestrated to allow us to live in this country today. Portraits and statues suggest that Indigenous peoples were eager to give up their land and their homes for the sake of white colonialism. 
Our guides overuse "these men died for your freedom" at memorials until it loses all meaning. I want to experience a tour that doesn't glorify the darkest parts of American history while whitewashing them at the same time.

All of this makes me incredibly uncomfortable. The reverence for the Founding Fathers borders on fanatical at times, and their shortcomings are dismissed because "well, that was normal for the time period." It is not normal for us, and giving them a pass normalizes racism and sexism, as if there was once an acceptable time to curtail rights and own human beings. 

I wish our tours were more honest about our history. I wish we had a chance to see diverse monuments that pay homage to the people who toiled against their will so we could live here as we do.

America did not spring up in a vacuum. It was not manifest destiny. People were murdered to secure our place on this land. The country was built through slave labor in the most literal sense of the phrase. And here we are, reaping the benefits, and barely sparing a moment to acknowledge from whence we came.

This is "our country". We feel that we own it. We take pride in it. (Sometimes.) We feel patriotic toward it. (Maybe.) But this blinkered nationalism...It has always made my skin crawl, and it seems to get worse every year.

I think this trip is valuable, but I just can't help but feel we're missing an opportunity to deepen the lesson and explore crucial complexities that would help our students develop compassion alongside national pride. Would it kill us to inject a little honesty into our history lessons?



  1. I love this post and all that you said! I couldn't agree more. As I sit and read your words, I keep thinking "you should make this into a letter and send it back to the company that does the tours". Maybe it will not do a darn thing but the important thing is that you took action for something you feel so strongly about!

  2. You are such a good writer Ali and make excellent points. I believe it is okay to love our country even though it IS flawed. When we know better, we DO better, and of course now we know better! Obviously that doesn't make things okay that happened in the past, in fact I think it's important to learn about it because it shows how far we've come. And by acknowledging it, it also acknowledges the sacrifice (not that it was their choice) of slaves and the Indigenous people.

    Do your students go to the Holocaust museum? Can you start going to the National Museum of African American History and Culture?

  3. Not only would it be beneficial to deepen the lesson to develop compassion alongside national pride, but it opens the doors to discussing that slavery still exists in the world. It really wasn't until I got into grad school that I began to develop a broader worldview. It would be great to begin discussions about minority rights around the world much earlier.

    I love Susan's idea to write to the tour guide company!

  4. What a great post. I, too, am so uncomfortable with the way we've made idols of our gifted but flawed founders. While many of their attitudes were "normal for the times," there were also many living then who did not espouse them; what does that say about how we've chosen to give the Founding Fathers a pass? Or, there were people who were anti-slavery but chose to accommodate slavery rather than risk the fledgling Union. How can we talk about that? It really is a both-and, isn't it? A way of getting your students to understand that a revered historical figure could be both lauded for their work in shaping our country and rightly criticized for a moral failing. And it's the both-and of looking closer at who we hold up and at bringing more stories to the forefront to challenge what we think we know. Great work.

  5. You wrote this beautifully! I really admire you and your efforts to make this country a better place for everybody without ignoring its history.

    Have you read Lies My Teacher Taught Me? that book showed me that in schools, kids are being taught from a very early age that slavery was a mistake that was quickly fixed and that white men were the ones who fixed it... It made me so angry to learn that our schools are teaching the wrong history to our children, even worst that they continue to hide and whitewash the real events of slavery, The Civil War, Reconstruction and Civil right movements! It has taken me to read and research books that will teach me the correct version of things!! and it makes me very angry that nothing is being done to fix this.

    I know my son is young, but I want him to know the real history of this country, but not to hate the country, but to honor and respect those who have worked to make it a good place for us to live.

    I do not feel this makes me less patriotic, or less wanting to be a citizen to this country, it just makes me want to be a better patriot, by teaching the correct history and knowing and showing, we can all learn from mistakes humanity has made.

    Thank you for writing this!

  6. I admire your passion on this topic. Do the teachers do a "follow up " session after the visit to D.C.? Is this something you could bring up with them? Or perhaps it is something you can talk about next year on the days leading up to the tour.