12 Years a Slave, Students of Jefferson County and the Undeniable Importance of History

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

        – George Santayana

Last weekend, I sat down and watched the film 12 Years a Slave. The movie is haunting. The film is based on the real life journey of Solomon Northup, who went from freedom to slavery, and the memoir he published about his captivity. It has been nearly two centuries since the journey unfolded. Yet, the film reminds us of the degradation he faced. Film has a way of doing that, of allowing us a window into a world that we have never encountered and doing so in a very public way. We can visit that world, and than talk about it around the water cooler on Monday. Let’s be frank, true history can never be defined in a Hollywood movie or in a textbook, but it can be examined. I do find it curious that I could have gone through 12 years of public education and yet never heard the name Solomon Northup.

As I watched 12 Years a Slave, my thoughts turned to Jefferson County, Colorado.  Recently, a large group of students have begun protesting proposed changes to its Advanced Placement History course curriculum. The Jefferson County school board feels that the course does not adequately represent the positive accomplishments America has achieved in its history while highlighting much of the failures the country has seen before it.  The board has proposed creating a committee to review texts and course plans, starting with the AP history course, to make sure materials “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-market system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights” and don’t “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”

Potential presidential candidate Ben Carson went as far as to say this about the course:

I am a little shocked quite frankly looking at the AP course in American history that’s being taught in high schools across our country right now. There’s only two paragraphs in there about George Washington. George Washington, believe it or not. Little or nothing about Martin Luther King. A whole section of slavery and how evil we are. A whole section about Japanese internment camps. A whole section about how we wiped out American Indians with no mercy. I mean I think most people when they finish that course, they’d be ready to sign up for ISIS. This is what we are doing to the young people in our nation. We have got to stop this silliness. We have to stop crucifying ourselves. Have we made mistakes as a nation? Of course we have. Why? Because we are people, and all people make mistakes.

Saying a history course could turn red-blooded American children into terrorists is a completely naive statement, and a terrifying one coming from a man who hopes his next address will be 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Many of the young people protesting in Jefferson County were but small children on September 11th, 2001. Most of them probably don’t recall that fateful day. Yet they will carry it with them, because we will teach them. We will tell them of the atrocities committed on that day by sinister people, and they will tell their children and that legacy will continue. We will not forget because that flame will carry on, though education. That is history. It is a legacy of all that we have accomplished and all that we have hurt, all of the pride and all of the pain.

It is not un-American to teach ugliness in a history course. It is a reminder of the atrocities that humanity is capable of. It is a lesson, yes a lesson, that this is a part of who we were. It is a reminder of how we could treat people with such indignity, intolerance and inhumanity. It was us.

America is great. Do I cringe when people say we shouldn’t say the Pledge of Alliance in our nation’s schools? Absolutely. To say teaching slavery and such in schools is un-American or that it will promote un-American activities is fundamentally wrong. History should teach us the accomplishments and the deficits. That is what it is for.

I feel proud that a group of young people who are now growing up where I grew up have the audacity, courage and pride to stand up for knowledge. They want to learn. Aren’t we obligated to teach, without politics and without agenda?

I have friends and family who have joined the most noble of armies: educators. They do so not out of financial reward or to enjoy a stress-free life. If they did so, they took the wrong path. They did so that they could make a difference. Let them make that difference. Politics belongs elsewhere.

We can pretend America is perfect, yet then we are dissolving everything our founders stood for and a fact that all of the great men and women this country has produced all recognized. We are not perfect, we never can be and we never will be. Yet the path we have walked has made us better, stronger, more capable and more prosperous. We are richer for our mistakes and because we grew from our deficits.

Nazi Germany was perfect, at least its political leaders taught it as truth. North Korea is perfect, at least its political leaders teach it as truth. We all know the real truth, because we learned it and because we see. Their history is not real history, it is propaganda. When you hide behind a veil, you never see past it. Hiding behind such a veil leads to ignorance and then intolerance and then inhumanity.

Students of Jefferson County, I stand with you. Learn, remember the past, fight for your knowledge and work to make this world a better place than the one you read about in history books.

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