What is “Patriotic History” – and why our Students Should Study It

15 Oct

Our grades six through eight students at Applewild have been following with interest the Jefferson County Colorado School Board deliberations this fall about instituting what the board members call a patriotic history curriculum. We began this conversation when our school participated in the national Banned Books Week activities in which librarians annually lift up specific banned books for our attention and astonishment ( such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Diary of Anne Frank,  To Kill a Mockingbird, the Harry Potter series). Coincidentally, and with exquisite irony, Banned Book Week was the week when the story broke nationally about the Jefferson County School Board’s preliminary decision about what constitutes the “appropriate” United States curriculum, one which does not emphasize the history of dissent. The district’s teachers, parents and most importantly the high school students reacted with outrage and, yes, protests.

Central to Our Country’s Foundation

I told our students that our eighth graders, who were in the process of reading The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail with me in Head’s Seminar, would not be able to read that play in Jefferson County (another irony, that the district ostensibly pays homage to the author of The Declaration of Independence!). We would not be able to discuss the ethical dilemmas faced by several of the characters. Our students were dumbfounded to learn that adults would want to expunge such central figures in our country’s history as Thoreau (who, after all, famously ‘hiked to Fitchburg’!). They wondered about Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Thomas Paine, Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr. These pivotal figures in our history were dissenters who challenged the status quo. They spoke out for human rights, what Jefferson himself called “unalienable rights.”

Our eighth graders know that the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights guarantees the freedom of religion, speech, the press, the right to assemble, and the right to petition the government. Our country is strong because of these rights – and when we exercise them we are doing our civic duty – we are being patriotic. To deny the part of our history in which this freedom has been crucial is to undermine the very foundation on which our nation exists. This right makes possible, in the words of the Reverend Theodore Parker and made famous for us by Martin Luther King Jr., that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Dissent has made possible this movement toward justice in our history. It is, in fact, patriotic – and why studying it is so essential.

Demanding Assignment – Citizenship

Reading excerpts from The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail is a rigorous assignment, particularly for eighth graders. The play is organized in a challenging, non-linear way. This prompted one student to ask the terrific question, “Is non-linear writing good writing?” The play has a minimal, non-realistic set and the characters move in and out of time and place. This is confusing, particularly when read on the page and not seen on stage. As difficult as these stylistic choices are, however, the play is particularly demanding because it challenges us to think about what a citizen’s responsibilities and allegiances are in society. Should Ralph Waldo Emerson speak out in the Concord town square against the Mexican War, as Thoreau asks? Should Emerson’s wife Lydian remain loyal to her husband’s equivocating nature when she clearly supports Thoreau’s belief? Our eighth graders discuss these and other ethical dilemmas in Head’s Seminar. The climax of Act One occurs when Emerson visits Thoreau and asks, “What are you doing in jail?” Thoreau demands of his teacher, “What are you doing out of jail?” That is a fundamental question of citizenship.

Our students discuss the choices these characters face. They understand that the choices are hard. They compare these to ethical dilemmas raised today by the Kinder Morgan Pipeline or the need for trained medical personnel to go to West Africa to fight Ebola. They come to understand that a sanitized version of history does no justice to those who lived it – nor to the ambiguities and difficult individual choices that make up that history. They realize, though one student said “This makes my head hurt,” that there may well not be easy answers. That is what good education does in a democracy – it prepares our young to ask questions, to understand, to participate. This prepares them for citizenship.

The Jefferson County School Board voted 3 – 2 last week to institute its “good news” curriculum in the face of not simply a public outcry locally that included articulate, impassioned appeals by both parents and students at an open meeting, but dismay expressed by history organizations on the national level and the College Board. The students continue to register their frustration in respectful, thoughtful ways, despite being called “pawns” and “punks” by members of the school board and Fox News, even as the young people on the streets of Hong Kong are praised for seeking freedom of speech. That is precisely what the students in Jefferson County are seeking. They are seeking an authentic patriotic curriculum, and they are being patriotic in exercising their First Amendment rights.

Students need to learn to think, to weight alternate perspectives, to understand that ‘the arc of progress’ comes at a cost. It matters that we teach our young that freedom and democracy require debate, active engagement, tough choices, and even personal sacrifice. It matters that we prepare them for genuine citizenship and not some saccharine substitute for it. At Applewild we encourage curiosity of mind, critical thinking, and civic-mindedness. This kind of education is the real “patriotic curriculum,” and I am proud of how we teach it and of our students for stretching to understand it.