The cries of outrage from the right wing at the demand by some on the left to pull famous names from public buildings reek of hypocrisy. Mind you, the mindless decision by the San Francisco Board of Education to rename 44 school buildings, including schools named for the likes of Senator Diane Feinstein, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson, reeks of political cowardice. Elected board members panicked and caved to the most extreme demands of some publicity hound of an activist. Their mindlessness included consulting Wikipedia to ‘guide’ their decisions. Devoid of thought process they recommended renaming Alamo High School thinking that it commemorated the Battle of the Alamo. In fact, it was named for the cottonwood trees (alamo in Spanish) which once grew in its neighborhood before it was cemented over. (Oddly, few American students are aware that foreign invaders defeated the armed forces of the legitimate government of Texas at the Alamo.) In my hometown of Washington DC, the statue of Lincoln freeing a grateful but kneeling emancipated black man does indeed offend modern sensibilities. Nevertheless, the manner of its removal and disposition needs to be carefully considered before we act. It should not simply disappear.
But what are we to say about a century and a half of school boards throughout the South (and elsewhere) systematically suppressing any knowledge of what really happened during the American Civil War? Where are the cries of outrage in Breitbart and FOX News over school boards blocking the teaching of science on behalf of one Christian doctrine? Did anyone notice that the Trump Administration refused to appoint anyone to a National Archives Board created to document the murder of civil rights advocates in the 1960s? The Trump Administration’s most egregious attempt to rewrite history to the liking of racists and religious zealots came with the appointment of the 1776 Commission in September 2020 to support what he called “patriotic education.” (I suppose it gave him something to do while ignoring the pandemic.) Although no professional historians or educators sat on the Commission, it produced (in three months) a 44-page report that condemned “progressive” political thought as antithetical to American values and conflated it with slavery, communism, and fascism. The Commission came to a quick and unlamented end on January 20, 2021.
The Texas Board of Education has set a particularly low bar for what it teaches the kids they supposedly want to educate. That august body has banned textbooks which teach evolution and climate change, discuss slavery as the cause for the Civil War, depict women doing ‘men’s work” (like carrying a briefcase), and required teaching about Phyllis Schlalfly, Newt Gingrich, and the late and unlamented Senator Joseph McCarthy, as role models as well as praising the work of the Moral Majority and the Heritage Foundation. The Texas Board ‘balanced’ these additions by subtracting references to Ted Kennedy, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and labor activists Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. In its wisdom, the Texas Board also removed FDR’s New Deal from the curriculum, despite the fact that it saved Texas from the Great Depression. In lockstep with the rest of the former slave states, the Texas Board also substituted the term “triangular trade” for “slave trade” in discussions on the Civil War. The Board revised the curriculum to downplay the central role that the issue of slavery played in causing the Civil War. It added requirements comparing the Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s inaugural address, which didn’t even mention slavery, with Abraham Lincoln’s speeches.
Why harp on the Texas Board of Education? Textbook publishers often change books to please Texas because it is the largest single market for textbooks in the United States. (Texas law requires all public schools to buy only books approved by the Board.) Smaller jurisdictions elsewhere in the United States buy the same books because they can save money, thus spreading this racist antiscientific education across the country. Those who have spent much time in the Muslim countries have noted a similar phenomenon; Saudi Arabia spread extremist jihadist ideology by providing free textbooks to poor countries.
One is tempted to excuse the overreach of the five-year-old movement derogatorily called ‘woke’ and ‘cancel culture’. It emerged as a reaction to the 150-year campaign to cancel history by partisans of a rebellion that sought to impose the legalization of slavery upon the entire country and deny political rights to the descendants of the slaves. Banning the flag of the slaveowners and removing the names of traitors from Army bases is salutary. But overreach harms us. Great men have done great things. Learning of their flaws teaches us how to emulate the great acts and avoid the flaws.
Without good education our country will suffer. Removing study of the classics of Western civilization, Plato and Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Shakespeare and all those other “dead white men” from the curriculum harms us. I read and re-read Shakespeare and Kipling (to the amusement of my children) to learn as well as to enjoy good English. We should EXPAND the curriculum, not make it smaller. We should add Great Works that originated in Asia and Africa, not just Europe. Eager young minds should have more information, not less, about American history. An informed citizenry should have a more than rote knowledge of the Bible and they should know about the Quran and the Vedas, as well. These books influence the lives of billions of people who share the globe with us. Knowledge is power; ignorance is the door to failure. Cancelling from right or left only increases ignorance.