What should be taught in school about American history?

commentary

milt thomas

As we celebrate the founding of our nation, we are at a dangerous juncture in our history – the ties that bind us as a nation are becoming untethered, battle lines are being drawn and we are approaching a level of divisiveness not seen since the Civil War.

Just as the Bible unites Christians, the Constitution unites Americans. The foundation of our democracy is contained in those four pages. Yet, while Christians frequently refer to the Bible for inspiration and guidance, how often does the average American refer to the Constitution, especially when it is under attack as it has been in the past year?

For too many people, learning about American history and the foundations of our democracy ended once those required courses were taken in school. Christians learn about our religion taking confirmation or catechism as teenagers. Then we continue to study and practice it (some more than others) for the rest of our lives. But how often do we refer to the Constitution for inspiration and guidance after our schooling?

Has it become simply words on paper, rather than a living document that reminds us how and why we achieved our liberties and defended them over the past 232 years?

Many countries claim to be constitutional democracies, but they are often little more than dictatorships where constitutions are changed or disregarded based on the whims of their leaders. Ours is the oldest and shortest written Constitution of any major government in the world, yet it is adhered to, almost religiously by the 330 million citizens it represents.

Our Constitution is the tie that binds us, regardless of our religion. We have always come together as a nation to defend and sacrifice our lives in support of the common vision shared in that document by our nation’s founders.

While the Constitution was written to represent the ideals of those who signed it, those ideals were not necessarily evident in the late 18th century. All men were not created equal at a time when many of our founding fathers kept slaves, and women were not considered equal to men. But our Constitution provided the opportunity through amendments and separation of powers to adapt our laws as the country grew and as society changed. Slavery was eventually abolished and women achieved the right to vote.       

So, why can’t we agree today on how American history should be taught to the next generation?

For women, a future of unlimited possibilities awaits them, including astronauts and CEOS of major corporations. Don’t they need to learn how their ancestors struggled to achieve that promise?

We also need to understand the history of slavery in America. Slavery is as old as mankind. The fact that it existed at the time of our founding document and was in fact practiced by the men who wrote it does not belittle or dishonor our founders. It is just as much our history as the Revolutionary War. We can acknowledge it today because we overcame it. More than 600,000 Americans lost their lives fighting a Civil War over slavery so the words of our founders could finally ring true.

Our founders did not anticipate post-slavery racism though. After the Civil War, Reconstruction was meant to correct the inequities created by slavery, but it never fulfilled that promise. Jim Crow laws in the south perpetuated economic slavery upon citizens of color. It took America another 100 years to begin dismantling those laws.

Great strides were made restoring equal rights in the 1960s, but the backsliding effects of racism continue to this day. A historic turnout of African-American voters in the last election should have represented full restoration of equal rights to all Americans, but instead, many states have since imposed laws meant to again curb those rights.

Those same states and the politicians behind them have also targeted the teaching of our racist history, considering it a blemish on our forefathers’ honorable efforts to achieve a more perfect union.

The fact we overcame slavery only adds to our honor and strength as a nation. That fact needs to be taught in school so today’s American youth understand all the obstacles our ancestors had to be overcome – both socially and on the battlefield – in order to give them the freedoms they enjoy today.

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