By Robert Katz
Was Thomas Jefferson a great man who wrote the Declaration of Independence and co-founded the University of Virginia, or a slaveholder who benefited from the most degrading of human relationships? Was the Louisiana Purchase a masterstroke that doubled American territory and gave opportunity to countless Americans, or was it a great blow to the sovereignty and viability of the Indian nations of the Midwest? Was America* the great country that liberated Europe from fascism, or was it a nation that conspired to overthrow democratically elected governments in Latin America and elsewhere?
If your answers to these questions were “All of the Above,” give yourself an A.
What kind of country are we? There is a longing by many for simple answers. America is a racist country or America is definitely not a racist country. But America, like Walt Whitman’s description of his Self, is large and contains multitudes. No one adjective or sentence can capture its essence.
For millions, immigrants from countries in which despots and feudal barons ruled, countries such as Russia and Romania where my Jewish grandparents came from, America was a land of great possibilities, notwithstanding its shortcomings. It was a place where there was some kind of rule of law, democratic self-rule however imperfect, and an economic system that, while not free of prejudice or exploitation, would allow them and their children to rise in the world.
For millions of others, America was a land where their forefathers were brought over in chains, or they were indigenous people uprooted from their land and subject to actual and cultural genocide, or they were Chinese or Japanese immigrants subject to all manner of exclusion and vilification.
These are some of the many American realities. They are all true. They give rise to a confusion that has fueled the debate about how US history should be taught. Slogans get thrown around, wokeness is exhibited and condemned, phrases like “critical race theory” are bandied about uncritically. The political right claims that the left is attempting to indoctrinate students to socialistic multiculturalism. And it’s true that some antiracist teachings, particularly in the realm of diversity training, can engage in fatuous generalizations. In a recent article in the New York Times Sunday Review, “Can We Talk about Critical Race Theory?” Jay Caspian Kang gives an example of teachers being trained that white culture fosters “independence and individual achievement,” while “color groups” rely more on “interdependence and group success.” Such racial stereotyping deserves the condemnation it’s gotten.
But if some on the left are guilty of this foolishness, partisans of the right have engaged in something yet more sinister: using the teaching of race and racism as a cultural wedge to divide the electorate for their own political advantage. Many in the Republican party, while accusing the left of propagandizing the young, promote a view of America’s racial history based on denial and deemphasis. They see teaching America’s historical crimes and follies as an attack on America itself. To win white votes they assert that teaching structural racism as an American reality is an attack on white people.
The strongest case for American greatness is that at times we have faced our failure to live up to our ideals and have attempted to rectify that failure. Think of the trade union movement that fought to give dignity and prosperity to working people who previously were at the mercy of their employers; the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s that, through civil disobedience and political activism, made strides in raising Black people up from third class citizenship; the progressive political movements that now see Mexican Americans represented at all levels of government and the appointment of the first American Indian Secretary of the Interior. None of these advances could have been possible without facing the grave injustices of the past. The last thing we need is right-wing indoctrination that tells us teaching uncomfortable truths about American history is un-American.
How about if we suspend the propaganda of both the right and the left in teaching American history? How about if we agree to teach the unvarnished facts, the good, the bad, and the ambiguous? Then let’s encourage students to embrace methods of reasoning, of sifting through evidence, of distinguishing the reliable from the dubious and deceptive so that they can come to their own conclusions about what kind of country America is. Raising a generation of independent-minded citizens in the art of critical thinking might just move America in the direction of becoming the great nation it always has aspired to be.
*I mainly use the less geographically and politically correct but more colloquial term “America” for the USA. As songwriters from Irving Berlin to Neil Diamond know, it scans better (emphasis added).