For the sake of our kids, may the adults put aside the political fights to teach history, a convoluted process, as it is???
Last summer, former president Trump signed an executive order to impose patriotic education in school. Before he left office, the White House published the 1776 Commission report. Around the same time, Pompeo tweeted that “[the] United States of America is the greatest country in the history of civilization.” I was shaking my head because “patriotic education” is now becoming “nationalistic education.” Patriotism is good; nationalism, however, is not.
Suddenly, history does not matter anymore; American is all great and even the greatest in the entire history of civilization. Let us all forget about ancient Egypt, ancient Greek, the Roman empire, the Chinese dynasty, and India. It looks like the previous administration conveniently left out the fact that any empire will rise and fall. 2000 years ago, it was the Roman empire in the west and the Han dynasty in the east thriving and conquering neighboring states. It is true that America is the most powerful country in the contemporary history. It was not the case in the distant past; it may not be the case in the next century.
While countries can have many scientific, artistic, and medical achievements that improve people’s lives, many countries go to wars and kill innocent people to expand territories. I am speaking from a Vietnamese perspective. After Vietnam gained independence from China, it started to expand southward. Vietnam was at wars with the Champa Kingdom for centuries. Eventually, Vietnam conquered and assimilated Champa people. While in school, I learnt about all the glorious victories during that era. Not until 2015 when I visited many Champa historical sites in central Vietnam did I feel that the history education in Vietnam robbed me of the other side of history: the suffering of the Champa people. It is exactly what I felt for my kids when I read the 1776 Commission report. Yes, I am afraid my kids would be robbed of the other side of history: the suffering of the Native Americans and African Americans.
I strongly disagree with the previous administration on their approach to patriotic education. At the same time, I feel the urge to push back against the idea of judging historical figures based on their sins for the purpose of social justice.
Last summer, Princeton decided to remove Woodrow Wilson name from its public policy school. While it is true that Wilson was racist, he transformed Princeton to a great research university. Unfortunately, the renaming madness does not stop in Princeton! San Francisco school board decided to rename 44 of its schools in a 6–1 vote, citing social justice as one of the reasons. The list of the schools to be renamed include the name of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson. Washington and Jefferson owned slaves; Lincoln committed discriminatory acts against Native Americans.
Using the name of social justice, this is getting too far and extreme. It does not matter what these historical figures achieved in the past, let us judge them based on their sins. History is complicated, and human nature is complex. Our historical actors could do many things right; yet at the same time, they could commit certain crimes.
I also want to point out that besides racial equality, the idea of social justice should include many issues such as gender equality and wealth equality. While Wilson was racist, he appointed Judge Brandeis to the Supreme Court when he was a president. This was a remarkable progress for left-of-center politics because Brandeis’ works revolved around ensuring equality and justice for the people. In a sense, Wilson contributed to the fight against wealth inequality even though he failed to push against racism.
The example of Dr. Martin Luther King, an important leader of the civil rights movement, should also be considered. Many of us knew that he organized peaceful protests, gave out inspirational speeches, connected people to join the civil rights movement. Yet, he was not perfect. In fact, report coming out recently revealed some unpleasant evidence of Dr. King’s treatment to women. He is a hero to our fight against racism; he may not be a hero to many feminists or the Me Too movement.
Here is another example. Carnegie and Mellon laid a foundation for Carnegie Mellon University. However, both Carnegie and Mellon were not heroes to the working class. Carnegie controlled the steel monopoly and exploited his workers. Mellon gave significant tax cuts to the corporations, funded Mussolini, and corrupted in many ways to enrich himself when he was the Treasury Secretary. There was an impeachment inquiry against him in the 1930’s.
So then, should we rename schools that are named after Dr. King, Carnegie, Mellon, and many other past actors that fall into this category? Also, which sin is worse than which sin? Is the sin of being racist worse than the sin of mistreating women? Is the sin of being racist worse than the sin of abusing poor people?
I am again speaking from a Vietnamese perspective. After the Vietnam war ended in 1975 and the North took control of the South Vietnam, government officers from Vietnam Communist Party renamed many schools and streets that had been named after historical figures who had fought for Vietnam independence in ancient history.
Patriotic education by the previous administration or renaming schools for the purpose of social justice will not lead to anywhere good; it may make people more extreme to one side or another. History is a messy and complex dynamics because it is not solely determined by historical actors discussed in textbooks. In addition to knowing about historical figures, it is equally important to learn about history of the people.
Lastly in this divisive political climate, schools should actively encourage freedom of thoughts because students are deserved to be introduced to various viewpoints. In fact, “[we] need the honesty and courage to recognize the faults, flaws, and failings of even the greatest of our heroes — and to acknowledge our own faults, flaws, and failings,” a powerful wisdom by professors Robert George and Cornell West.