The Recorder – My Tour: History, Race and Education


History has always been the least popular subject in American curricula, which is not surprising given the bland manner in which it is typically taught. In fact, history is an endless stream of cause and effect, of subtle nuances and complexities determined by human fragility, opposing personalities and the unexpected. Unsurprisingly, while incidents in the story may pass for objective, their interpretation is anything but.

Like everything about race in America, the issue of Critical Race Theory (CRT) teaching has created a national storm, one of the results of which is ugly targeting of teachers. From the conservative right, teachers have been threatened with heavy fines, dismissal and charges of promoting “communism” if they teach anything about America’s racial past. From the militant left, we have been denounced as racists if we do not educate according to their fragile orthodox ideology.

I was fortunate enough to teach before the compulsory programs and, as someone obsessed with history, I created my own. This included separate units in 1995 on the Holocaust and African American slavery. In my senior year I taught what I called “Three Families” which traced the flow of American history from an English, African, and Native perspective (I had a small class; otherwise I would have added Hispanic, Irish and Jewish families.) All of my units were conducted from a ‘You Are There’ perspective which put my fifth graders at the center of the story through their diaries, role plays, their guided pictures and child-friendly readings.

Despite the intensity of the topic, however, the issue of safety was paramount, which is why I gave them a sense of ownership of the units. I don’t believe in bludgeoning children with all the crimes committed by mankind and when my children told me they had had enough of the Holocaust unit, I obeyed and we moved on to lighter subjects.

As my class was exclusively white, during the Slavery Unit I also pointed out that none of this was their fault, was not on them, and there was no need to feeling shame or guilt for the actions of others. I realize that such an attitude goes against some who believe that instilling shame on the race is a necessity in order to face the truth. I disagree and any teacher who shames a student for their identity – any identity – should find another profession. In my opinion, collective guilt does not exist and we are not responsible for the sins of our ancestors or the crimes of others like us. It’s on them. And while systemic racism is an undeniable reality, dealing with it is the job of adults, not kids who have enough to cope with navigating an increasingly stressful and confusing world.

But unlike deceptive Republican hysteria, teaching racism is not anti-American. It’s an integral part of who we are. This is not the only part, however. History is a subjective exercise and over the course of my life its teaching has shifted from one extreme to the other. Maybe now is the time to come back to the center.

For us baby boomers who grew up in the 1950s, we received the sanitized version of this story that told us that America was the land of the free and the home of the brave, created by our founding fathers who were models of freedom and equality. Christopher Columbus was a courageous and fearless explorer who discovered the New World for the advancement of civilization. Slavery may have been briefly noted, but that was in the past and Jackie Robinson was “a credit to his race”.

These tales of our national saga were turned upside down in the late 1960s and early 1970s as the civil rights struggle, the Vietnam War and Watergate revealed the fabrication of myths. Now the Founding Fathers are presented as a pack of white slave-owning hypocrites and Columbus was the most genocidal killer in history. The United States is nothing but a corrupt nation built by slaves on land stolen from Native Americans.

Both accounts combine truth and narrow-minded rhetoric, but it is the responsibility of an informed citizen to discern the real facts for themselves. We can (and love) our country while recognizing its history, however unsavory it may be. Despite America’s shortcomings, millions of refugees and immigrants still come here. Africans, Asians, Muslims, Gay, Transgender and Native Americans proudly serve in our military to defend our nation. Teaching about racism is about accepting inconvenient truths and instilling in young people the need to live by the best of American ideals.

Daniel A. Brown has lived in Franklin County for forty-four years and is a frequent contributor to The Recorder. His article on teaching his fifth-graders about the Holocaust won an Educational Publishing Award in 1999. He only invites constructive comments at


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