Timothy May: Where ignorance is bliss, is it folly to be wise?
“There is a cult of ignorance in this country … nurtured by the false notion that ‘my ignorance is as good as your knowledge.'” — Isaac Asimov, 1980.
I rarely feel nostalgia for my all-white, college prep high school days years ago in Salt Lake City. But recently, in light of the disingenuous laws being passed in a dozen states directing their public schools to avoid discussing any ideas that may result in racial “discomfort” (i.e., discomfort for white students), I recalled a teacher from high school who forever established my notions of what constitutes patriotic education, a man who inspired me to become a teacher myself.
Please understand that until 11th grade, disdain, not comfort, was our response to sanitized civics and history classes while an unpopular war and military draft clouded our future, racial prejudice and inequality persisted everywhere, and newspapers were almost daily exposing government misinformation campaigns.
But in our junior year, we benefited from a course correction, steering us toward patriotism, intellectualism and idealism.
On our first day of U.S. History, our young, confident teacher strolled into class and wrote a long quotation on the blackboard. I immediately recognized that statement again after all these years while reading Ron Chernow’s recent biography of Ulysses Grant.
In the passage, the general recounts his feelings at the end of the Civil War: “I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and so valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”
When he was finished at the board, our teacher turned to us, read the statement slowly and dramatically, then said: “OK, we see here Gen. Grant’s state of mind at the conclusion of the greatest ordeal our country has ever suffered. Anyone care to elaborate on the cause Grant was referring to? And how long had this cause been around before the war? In what ways might it still be around?”
The discussion that ensued was lively. We were talking, laughing, challenging each other’s views. Here was something new: a teacher who expected us to share our best thinking about historical events, not just read and echo a text.
After that first day, we backtracked, studying and discussing colonial America and Southern slavery, the Declaration of Independence, the War of Independence and the Constitution.
We analyzed historical movements, important court cases, wars, national triumphs and catastrophes, and heinous atrocities.
We addressed the 19th century Indian Wars, the Trail of Tears, Wounded Knee, and the tragic decimation of America’s indigenous population. We tried to make sense of the Chinese Exclusionary Act of 1892, considering the contributions of the Chinese in completing the intercontinental railroad.
We studied the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War and the inhumanity and violence of the Jim Crow South. We pondered hard questions about the motive and conduct of the Mexican-American War and its historical repercussions.
We discussed our country’s incredible achievements in both world wars, and the events on the home front, including the internment of Japanese Americans and the seizure of their property.
And always our instructor returned to his core question: are we, as President Lincoln declared, a country conceived in liberty and dedicated to equality for all?
Did we feel comfortable confronting historical facts about America’s unjust wars, our racial violence, our forced re-settlements? No. But I recall believing our generation could and would do better, as individuals and as a society. I recall as well our pride in the accomplishments of many Americans, from the courage of Virginia and New England settlers to the determination of Mormon pioneers to the heroism of U.S. soldiers on the beaches of Normandy.
Now in 2021, along comes historical denialism, a populist trend threatening the intellectual integrity of our schools, a movement designed to hinder, not promote, the critical thinking skills of American students.
Legislation to omit critical facts in American history courses, designed by politicians to rally support for a cause that is and always has been repugnant, will be rejected by perceptive young people everywhere, for it has been my experience students are discomforted more by moral hypocrisy than historical fact.
Timothy May, who lives in Grass Valley, is a retired high school and college English instructor.
Change is not easy. I get that.
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