Some forty years ago, shortly after I came to Albany, the late Kathy Katz put Frances Fitzgerald’s America Revised in my hands. I had become a history buff as a kid and knew that much of what was in my high school texts was nonsense. So did my teachers. It wasn’t ‘til I took history courses at college that I was assigned books and authors who actually cared about truth. There’s nothing new about the distortion of history in service of telling kids fairy tales about America. But teaching our children that minority groups have played important and positive roles in America remains a political football.
Fitzgerald ended America Revised saying “To teach history with the assumption that students have the psychology of laboratory pigeons is not only to close off the avenues for thinking about the future; it is to deprive American children of their birthright.” The politicization of history over just telling the truth makes it impossible for our children to deal with it. Instead of dealing with real problems they first have to clear the lies we told them out of the way.
I was appalled and immediately set about to address the constitutional implications in a lengthy law review article which was reprinted in a journal for teachers of history. Whatever private schools might do, public schools, and schools that exist on public dollars, have an obligation to the truth. My response was to try to figure out how to deal with it. Broadcasters used to be required by the fairness doctrine to provide a balanced presentation of important public issues. To give only one side of an issue wasn’t fair to the truth or the public. And to give only one side of important and contested historical issues misrepresents the facts and isn’t fair to the students or our country. To omit factual examination of what has been done to and done by African-Americans by such studies as the 1619 Project distorts American history for political purposes. Students are entitled to more. By the way, we discovered that students in honors courses were reading history books that described abolitionists, those who worked to abolish slavery, as the “lunatic fringe.” That was simply outrageous but illustrates the continuing perversion of history by politics and prejudice.
As I summarized:
two factors justify constitutional scrutiny of school texts: the almost uniquely captive status of public school students, and the accompanying danger that indoctrination may severely undermine the central first amendment value that criticism of government and public officials not be inhibited. Not only do individual students suffer from enforced exposure to one-sided communications chosen by the government, but, if this indoctrination is effective, the community’s political life suffers as well. The question involves not only individual rights, but also government’s role in structuring public discourse.
To ban all teaching of the history of minority groups in this country is not only or even primarily to ban “Critical Race Theory,” but to cheat students and the public of the realization that no one group has a monopoly on contributions to our country – indeed our country is better because our political, racial, ethnic and religious groups have benefitted from each other’s contributions. Politicians have no right to twist and censor historical facts for their own purposes. They can say what they please but have no right to use the law to censor facts, history and ideas from schools or libraries to suit their political preferences.
It’s time to squelch the liars and protect those who tell the truth and present history and other facts fairly – in state houses, on school boards, and on state and local book selecting agencies. Our kids and our future together as Americans deserve better.
Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.
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