TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 21, 2023
That's what Al Sharpton said: What do you want American kids to be taught about American history?
Surely, they should be exposed to—in that sense, they should be "taught"—an array of basic facts.
But what should they be "taught" after that? Should they be "taught" anything else at all? What should be presented to students in an American history class?
In the current instance, we're talking about American public school kids—American high school students.
What do you want those kids to be taught about the history of their country? Long ago and far away, MSNBC's Nicolle Wallace offered these puzzling claims:
WALLACE (2/14/23): [Ron DeSantis has] put out a narrative. So to counter a narrative, you have to aggressively put the facts out there.
But there's only one set of facts. There's only one history, and I wonder what you think threatens him about the one set of facts and the true history.
We'd have to say that the highlighted statement by Wallace involved a huge swing and a miss. In fairness to Wallace, it's amazing to see how many scholars have been quoted, in recent weeks, making similar remarks.
Let's return to what Wallace said. Is it really true that there's "only one set of facts?"
To the extent that that statement may be true, there are trillions of such facts. Inevitably, someone will have to decide which of those facts will be included, and may even be stressed, in a 36-week high school history course.
Is it really true that there's "only one [American] history?"
In the farthest recesses of Emerson Hall, someone might want to waste his time arguing some such proposition. But out there in the actual world where history is taught and discussed in the schools, that statement makes no real sense:
Inevitably, a year-long course in American history won't just be a jumble of facts. Something like a point of view will likely be involved in that jumble of facts, and there are as many possible points of view as there are architects of American history courses.
Someone will be telling the story, ages and ages hence! Inevitably, the people who are telling the story will have some point of view.
One day after Wallace fanned on this question, she introduced "our friend and colleague, the Reverend Al Sharpton," on her Deadline: White House program. He proceeded to discuss his views on a current manifestation of this age-old problem.
We've long admired Sharpton for his intelligence, but also for his sense of humor, which he often purs to good use. We also think he went badly wrong in at least one recent high-profile situation.
Even within our own blue tribe, none of our tribunes qualify as the oracle at Delphi! Beyond that, we're not entirely sure that he and Wallace are actual "friends."
At any rate, how does Sharpton think American history should be taught to high school students? More specifically, what does he see as the story behind the jumble of facts?
On February 16, Sharpton described one possible view. At issue was his idea of the way our frequently brutal history should be taught to high school kids in the College Board's new Advanced Placement course on African American Studies.
How should our frequently brutal history be presented in some such class? On that particular day, on Morning Joe, here's part of what Sharpton said:
SHARPTON (2/15/23): You're going to limit what we can read and write in AP history classes? Like, people won't be able to handle watching movements like the civil rights movement, like the Black Lives Matter movement, like LGBTQ rights?
And it is not to condemn the country, it's to show how the country evolved. We need to know we went from slavery to electing Barack Obama. To try and eliminate that, I think, is un-American as much as it is racist.
We were most struck, as we watched that program, by the highlighted part of his statement. That said:
So many claims and suggestions, so little time!
For starters, it isn't entirely clear what Sharpton meant in various parts of that statement. For starters, is someone trying to eliminate the fact that this nation "went from slavery to electing Barack Obama" from the College Board's AP class?
Is someone trying to eliminate such facts from high school history classes? It's hard to believe that some such thing could be true. Who is trying to do that?
For better or worse, much of the conversation this day dealt with Ron DeSantis.
For better or worse, our nation's pundits rarely spend much time talking about our high school students. Instead, they talk about him.
For the record, Sharpton had been in Florida one day before he appeared on Morning Joe. He had led a protest march against DeSantis' various, often murky complaints and threats concerning the AP course.
Perhaps inevitably, discussion of the AP course has largely turned into a discussion of DeSantis.
On cable, our tribunes talk and talk, and talk and talk, about Ron DeSantis. They may not focus on the general interests and needs of American high school kids.
Setting all that to the side, we were struck by the part of Sharpton's statement which we've chosen to highlight. Was it our imagination, or had Sharpton possibly suggested that the AP history course could or should present a somewhat positive viewpoint?
"It is not to condemn the country," Reverend Sharpton said. "It's to show how the country evolved." It's to show that we somehow managed to make it all the way to Obama.
That statement could be the start of conversation about what a high school history course should present to American kids. Instead, our conversations tend to lapse into a kind of Babel, with furious talking-points repeated, again and again, about the Florida politician Sharpton was discussing.
Last Tuesday, Wallace adopted the view that "there's only one [American] history"—"the true [American] history." In principle, there are as many American histories as historians—and high school teachers—want to conceive and tell.
For ourselves, we don't think a high school American history course should "condemn America." We also don't think that some such course should resemble a feel-good old Disney film.
What type of American history should be presented to high school kids? We'd love to see that question discussed. Instead, the past few weeks have introduced us to a type of Babel, as warring groups denounce each other in familiar shopworn ways.
Kids are going to enter classrooms to encounter their nation's history. One fact from our history is this:
"We must not be enemies," one president. said. For better or worse, wisely or not, that well-known president also said, "We are not enemies, but friends."
Tomorrow: McWhorter? Gates? The press corps?