My father taught high school social studies for twenty-one years, including standard courses on American and world history. But the focus wasn’t always on the past.
Through the sixties and seventies — a volatile and divisive era — he never shied away from discussing then-current events like the Vietnam War, an especially potent topic for seniors who would become eligible for the draft upon graduation. Two decades after World War II, he introduced the first-in-America elective class on the Holocaust. He discussed the civil rights movement and rallied students to perform “In White America,” a play by historian Martin Duberman about race relations in the United States. Dad not only oversaw the production, he appeared as the narrator.
How did he get away with that in a mostly-white community on Long Island? He built a reputation as a no-bullshit man everyone in the school respected. Students wanted to be in his classes. Faculty and the administration supported him — even naming him chairman of the department.
At the beginning of each semester he explained that his curriculum included hot-button subjects from the past and present. He told students, “This is an elective. You chose to be here, and I’m glad you did. But one thing I will not tolerate is complaints about the subject matter from your parents. If they are going to have a problem with you learning about and discussing these issues in my classroom, you are welcome to leave now and enroll in another elective.”
No student ever dropped out of one of his classes. No parent ever lodged a complaint. No outside forces interfered with what he taught in his classrooms.
I tell you this because of the current plague of parents and politicians sticking their noses into teachers’ business all over the country. The so-called “parents’ rights” movement is nothing more than an attempt by racists and homophobes who think they know better than experienced teachers and administrators what should be taught in public schools. Too many spineless districts overreact when there’s a single complaint.
Take for instance the elementary school in St. Petersburg, Florida, which recently stopped showing kids a 1998 Disney movie about Ruby Bridges, the six-year-old Black girl who integrated a public elementary school in New Orleans in 1960. Why? Because of a complaint from one parent who claimed it might teach children that white people hate Black people.
Fact: at that time, there were a vast number of white people who hated Black people. And not just in New Orleans. That’s why Ruby had to be escorted by law enforcement to and from the school building while adults lined the sidewalk and shouted racist epithets. It’s an important part of our history — from not all that long ago.
Plus, this is a movie from Disney, which no one (outside of DeSantis-land) could ever consider an extremist corporation. I’d bet that in the 25 years since the movie was released, no one has thought it was advancing an anti-white agenda. Yet the film was pulled in St. Petersburg, thus denying all the other students a valuable lesson.
I’ll close with an excerpt from a recent piece by Charles M. Blow on this subject:
What happens if this glove gets turned inside out and minority parents begin to complain about the teaching of other aspects of American history and culture?
What happens if they reject lessons or books about Thomas Jefferson because he raped a teenage girl he enslaved, Sally Hemings, and was the father of her children, including at least one born while she was a child herself. (For the record, I consider all sex between enslavers and those they enslaved rape, because it was impossible for the enslaved to consent.)
What happens if a parent objects to a school celebrating Columbus Day because Christopher Columbus was a maniacal colonizer who sold young girls as sex slaves?
What happens if parents object to books about and celebrations of Thanksgiving because the standard portrayal of the first Thanksgiving as a meeting among friends who came together to share bounty and overcome difference is a fairy tale?
What if they object to the Bible itself, which includes rape, incest, torture and murder?
History is full of horribleness. We do ourselves and our children no favors pretending otherwise.
Learning about human cruelty is necessarily uncomfortable. It is in that discomfort that our empathy is revealed and our righteousness awakened.
I can’t think of another business that would change its product because one person didn’t like it. The fact that an educational institution would do so appalls me.