My Turn: The plight of teachers

For the Monitor
Published: 1/18/2022 6:01:14 AM
Modified: 1/18/2022 6:00:10 AM

Thomas White’s My Turn (“Fear of the past will hold us back,” Monitor, 12/29) expressed many of my thoughts about the plight of teachers in today’s charged and distrustful atmosphere.

He addresses the crippling impact our society will suffer if children are taught in classrooms where open, spirited and respectful conversations are no longer possible. The “divisive concepts” law passed last session and An Act Relative to Teachers’ Loyalty, to be introduced this term, aim to define what can and cannot be discussed in classes.

Ultimately, both laws seem designed to protect white children from feelings of discomfort that they might experience when they learn about the many incidents and types of racism that have occurred in our country. With serious consequences for teachers who violate these, in places, vaguely worded laws, it’s inevitable that a chill effect will occur as history is being taught.

Discomfort is part of the human experience. Think about how Black and brown children have felt for years in classrooms where history lessons inaccurately portrayed their ancestors or didn’t mention them at all. The above-mentioned laws challenge the idea that our society is currently racist or that the country’s origins were.

An example: the newly proposed law demands that our history of slavery be presented in the context of a worldwide phenomenon, thereby showing that our history of enslaving people was not unique. How does this change the fact that our Declaration of Independence states, “all men are created equal,” and our Constitution defined enslaved people as 3/5 of a person? Noting this paradox does not make someone unpatriotic or disloyal.

Studying the past is crucial to understanding the present. Consider this. In 2016, the average net worth of a white family was nearly ten times that of a Black family. A curious student might ask why? The answer is found in our history.

“Efforts by Black Americans to build wealth can be traced throughout American history. But these efforts have been impeded in a host of ways, beginning with 246 years of chattel slavery and followed by Congressional mismanagement of the Freedman’s Savings Bank (which left 61,144 depositors with losses of nearly $3 million in 1874), the violent massacre decimating Tulsa’s Greenwood District in 1921, discriminatory policies throughout the 20th century including Jim Crow era’s “Black Codes” strictly limiting opportunity in many southern states, the GI Bill, the New Deal’s Fair Labor Standards Act’s exemption of domestic agricultural and service occupations, and redlining. Wealth was taken from these communities before it had the opportunity to grow.” (Brooking Institution, February 27, 2020)

Would teaching the information in the previous paragraph violate New Hampshire law? Should it? How can we help students wrestle with this history?

In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Civil Liberties Act. This law granted reparations to Japanese Americans who had been interned during World War II. He issued an apology to an entire generation of Japanese Americans for unjustly locking them up. Many countries have faced atrocities in their past by replacing lies and whitewashing in history textbooks with accurate depictions of what happened or creating Truth and Reconciliation Commissions to acknowledge victims’ experiences and forgive perpetrators. To our north, Canada signed an agreement with the First Nations in Canada to pay reparations to the 90,000 living people who were forced to attend boarding schools. They also set aside funds for healing and educational programs.

The hysteria that is gripping people about Critical Race Theory and history classrooms won’t help us progress as a country. Critical Race Theory (an academic theory that is not taught in high school classrooms) has become shorthand for a fearful response to truth. Yes, in recent years, there have been more lessons that examine racism in our country, its pervasiveness and institutionalization, not to injure students, but to give them a fuller understanding of our past.

We need to share both the good and bad parts of our history with our children and have faith that we and they can face it.

(Glen Ring taught history and social studies in the Concord School District for 26 years.)

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