Like most of us who educate our kids at home, I often have a bookmark in several books at one time. I am currently reading My American Journey, the autobiography of four-star General and former Secretary of State Colin Powell. As he shares the story of his life—his family’s West Indian heritage, surviving the South during the 60’s, and his stint in Vietnam—I am reminded of how each of us lives in the midst of history-in-the-making every day. Though most of us will never have General Powell’s professional accomplishments, we raise our kids, we celebrate holidays, we love, laugh, and cry amidst events that the next generations will learn about in textbooks.
This dynamic is so well played out in Lee Daniel’s The Butler, the story of five United States Presidencies told from the perspective of a man whose job it was to serve in the White House. Near the end of the movie, there is a very moving scene in which the butler (masterfully played by Forrest Whitaker), now retired and living with his son, watches through tears of joy as President Barack Obama is nominated for President in 2008. As I watch the butler’s son console him, I imagine my own father had he lived to witness that historical moment. My father would have never cried—I only saw his tears, which he considered a sign of weakness, at my mother’s funeral. But I could hear him say with a certain awe, “That colored boy made it.” Growing up in the 1920’s and 1930’s, “colored boy” was a term that was familiar to him when speaking of other black men. I imagine he’d been described that way a few times, even as a grown man. I can remember my mother, in the attempt tp bring my father into the 20th century, saying, “J.P., we don’t call ourselves that anymore.” Her words fell on deaf ears.
In a twisted sort of way, there is a life lesson in my dad’s unintentional reluctance to refer to black people as anything other than “colored.” He held on to what he felt was his place is history, even if the image was skewed. In stark contrast, somehow we have now reached a level of education in which Africans who endured the horrors of the American slave trade are now being listed as “immigrants” in some school textbooks.
Somehow we have decided that some black and brown people are not significant enough in their contributions to history to be included as a part of every student’s history education.
Somehow there is an increased attempt at “whitewashing” history such that knowing what [primarily] Western European immigrants did is a requirement; know what happened to everyone else is an elective.
The politically correct, revisionist efforts that deem Chavez as relatively insignificant and Chief Justice Marshall as radical speak volumes about what history studies are losing: a sense of historical empathy. The impact of this retelling of truth is that history is so bland and uneventful that our future generations grow apathetic. Our children have nothing to ponder, nor are they compelled to respond intellectually to the “whys” of life. Many history studies lack that necessary “feast of ideas.” Try justifying history lessons to a pre-teen or teen by saying, “Well, you just need to know this.” Yeah, right.
The point of teaching history is not to preserve the past, but instead to shape a better future. You do know what happens to people who do not know their history, right?
So, as people who have a chance to do better, there are other questions that we are also compelled to ask about our kids’ studies:
- Are stories told from a different perspectivethan your own?
- Do all the biographies in your history curriculum look like you?
- Does your study of history provide you with new information?
- Do the stories within your curriculum provoke emotions?
- Does your study of history give you and your family something to think about—now and later?
- Does your curriculum give you suggestions for further reading on a given topic based upon your children’s interests?
- How often do your children refer back to the stories told during your history studies?
Books like To Kill a Mockingbird, Farewell to Manzanar, and yes, even the banned Huckleberry Finn are difficult to read. Yet, they are as much a part of understanding what events have shaped this nation—psychologically, socially, and economically—as any dry-as-toast textbook that would easily gloss over these darker parts of history. Should you as a home educator just trash what you have start over? I think not. But more on that later…