Should Schools Sugarcoat the Truth?

My neighbors’ son came home from school last week and happily recited the hero-worship of Christopher Columbus he’d been taught that day. They were less than thrilled because they know what most adults know: Columbus committed murder, torture, and rape, and enslaved adults and children. He also apparently combined some of those pursuits into a sex-slave trade. In 1500, he wrote: “A hundred castellanoes (a Spanish coin) are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten [years old] are now in demand.”

Of course, my neighbors also know we can’t teach that to young children. But do we need to teach the opposite? Weren’t the Vikings here before Columbus, anyway? Do we have to be such suckers for the victor’s version of history?

Their story reminded me of an incident that occurred when I worked at the Minnesota Legislature. A very conservative woman had been appointed by Governor Tim Pawlenty to head the state’s education department and decide what students should and should not be taught. One contentious issue was her opposition to the notion that the annihilation of Native Americans and their culture in the 19th century was genocide.

On public radio, she said: “I don’t think the accidental infection of some blankets with smallpox could be termed genocide.”

Let’s put aside her total ignorance of facts–okay, let’s not: population decimation, forced assimilation of Native American children taken from their parents and dropped into American schools, reservations, the slaughter of the buffalo… Not to mention the U.S. Army’s purposeful infection of blankets with smallpox—known today as biological terrorism. You don’t need gas chambers and ovens to commit genocide and someone supposedly smart enough to lead an education department should know that. (Perhaps she was the victim of her own sugar-coated education–we tend to tell the truth when others commit atrocities, but not when we do.)

However, she made another point: Even if in some crazy, alternate universe we had committed genocide, she said, children should not be taught that in school.

But we did commit genocide. So the question becomes, do we teach our children the truth or do we lie? Do we rely on fact or do we include fiction?

This dichotomy of American thinking, the ability to acknowledge and accept conflicting ideas, is as old as the country itself: We were founded on groundbreaking principles of personal liberty—plus slavery.

Democracy, plus lack of women’s suffrage.

A nation of just laws, plus Jim Crow.

Go West, Young Man! plus the genocide of the Native Americans.

It’s no wonder our schools teach cognitive dissonance. I felt betrayed when I learned, in college, the truth about so many of our histories. What had my public education been for, simply to memorize euphemisms and half-truths? Isn’t that sort of like brainwashing?

I understand that we need to instill pride in this country, otherwise the country is lost. And America is great. It’s just not perfect.

I believe if we teach children the truth, at age-appropriate levels, then we will raise learners who question. We will nurture critical thinkers who can problem solve to save the world. I believe we can hold and accept two conflicting ideas, as long as it’s acknowledged that they are conflicting. As long as they’re real.

If we teach the bad with the good, we will show children what this nation has overcome and can overcome, which is what truly makes us great.

What do you think? Fact or fiction? Or isn’t it that simple?

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21 thoughts on “Should Schools Sugarcoat the Truth?

  1. Jess- as a former middle school social studies teacher you can imagine I have some strong feelings on this topic 🙂 I do believe it is our job to teach them the reality of our history, but to do so in a way that allows for them to truly understand the factors that slant the writing of history, and how historical truth can be determined. For example, one activity I did was to hand out a reading passage to determine what happened when the Europeans and Africans first met in Africa. Without telling the class I divided them in half and gave one half “That Was No Welcome”
    and the other half “That Was No Brother.” I told the students that they are historians trying to determine what happened when these 2 groups first met. They immediately started debating about what happened, and the 2 sides were astonished with each other that they were siding with the Europeans or the Africans. Once they realized what was going on, I had them read the other “side” of the story and then we had a discussion about who was right, what really happened and how do we know the truth. I asked them if they think there is any way to write unbiased history. It was a great exercise to get them to think about who’s writing what they are reading and the importance of looking at a variety of resources and perspectives to gain a more accurate understanding of our history.

    • I love that exercise! I do remember the school I student-taught at a couple years ago did something similar. I never did that until at least late high school, maybe college. So I’m glad it’s becoming customary.
      I love how much you love education. 🙂

  2. I believe in teaching children the truth. From evolution to slavery to genocide. I member watching holocaust videos in school in 5th grade. I also remember not knowing about Japanese internment camps until high school…I remember feeling disgusted that it wasn’t common knowledge (at least not within my HS circle of friends).
    I think we should be teaching accurate history to our children.

  3. Yes, I think that an age appropriate version of the truth is in order. I too remember being astounded when I found out the truth about Columbus, slavery, women’s rights and and so many other parts of our history by high school as well as,the Japanese internment camps, and the Tuskegee Syphilis experiments, as I got older. I truly believe that we can be patriotic while acknowledging our shortcomings. Those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it.

    • Yes – that’s a perfect way to phrase it. I think we sometimes give children too little credit to be able to handle complicated and complex thoughts. They can learn about this stuff and be patriotic, too.

  4. I don’t know where you are, but Columbus isn’t taught much here – everyone knows he wasn’t the first – just one of many. It is still an excuse for stores to have sales.
    LIke anything, teaching must be age appropriate ( the trick is getting everyone to agree on what that means).
    As far back as the 50’s here, specific colonial/pioneer/frontier women were taught as important historical figures…long before mandated by Women’s Lib. movement.
    I guess it’s regional.
    Might be nice if schools had balance and taught as many good things about this country as they did about mistakes, cruelty, and harmful things that have happened. But it’s human nature to just think negatively? Not a lot of balance these days – all one way or the other. Sad.
    What would really help kid to develop higher level thinking skills is to eliminate multiple choice tests.
    School at one time taught yearly units on analysis of writing/articles for what was called then propaganda techniques: over generalizations, stereotyping, jumping to conclusions, lack of logic, you know them….started in about 5th grade and continued to high school.
    The goal was to grow critical thinkers and readers and teach logic and reasoning skills.
    But that was then – when they used to teach it was wrong to laugh at someone’s misfortune and it was wrong to laugh if someone got hurt….(big laffs on TV now.)
    Our kids deserve better than what they are getting – and the country depends on an educated population.

    • That’s a good point — I’m sure much of this is regional. I’m in the Chicago area….don’t know what that says about us.
      It WOULD be great if children were tested mostly with essay questions and such; but for that to happen, we’ll need more teachers and more funding. When I student-taught, it took me 1/2 an hour to grade one eighth grade 2-page essay–to grade it well, anyway.

      • Quite familiar with Chicago schools. (Explains much)
        Actually you’d need teachers with better skills, and knowledge. Teachers should have undergrad. majors in specific fields, have a B or better average to even enter Teacher education track – and have passed the Grad. Entrance exam (all successful districts used to require this in our state – your area is one that put an end to it nationwide).
        More is being spent per child than ever before – with less success.
        Kids can learn (even if 45 in classroom) if the teacher is good and not burned out from fighting the public school system.
        (Oh, before I moved into a career that could fund a living wage, I got that essay analysis down to 11 1/2 min per 5 paragraph/3+ pages. You get faster…and do not use a red pen, ever.)
        Kids must write at least once a week to improve analytical / critical thinking skills(among other things)…only way to prove they know and understand….and they must only write in class so it’s their work.
        It can be done and works.
        Teaching kids is not a mystery. Too many want to use them as experimental subjects for their theories…too bad for the kids

        • Not in Chicago. Just nearby. In what’s supposed to be one of the best districts in the state. But I hear you. I agree with everything you said with two exceptions: that “if” in “if the teacher is not burned out” is a big if, don’t you think? It is so easy to get burned out when you have 45 kids in your classroom, I don’t care how good a teacher you are. And two, I just watched an interview with an education expert (wish I could remember who–a professor at some university) who has studied the data over the last forty or so years and we are actually doing about the same, if not better, as then. What’s different isn’t that we’re doing worse than we used to, it’s that other countries are doing better than they used to.

          • Hmmm. worked with 2 powerhouse research univ. edu think tanks…please consider data can be used in multiple ways…dealt with national edu research data a lot.
            Other countries were sending their “experts” and teachers for observing and training back in the late 70’s
            Japan and China in particular were very interested in how the US approached concept thinking, analytical skills,and logic and reasoning at that time. (they already have the rote part down, but their students did not perform so well with “creative thought” which drives inventions and creating products).
            Burn out is the big issue. Good teachers get driven to the ground and asked to do more than others.Paid the same as a teacher who reads magazines and watches TV at her desk (and some do exactly that)
            45 kids is too many in today’s classrooms – different attitudes towards learning from parents, lack of discipline, many languages and cultures, too many reading below grade level and extremely wide variations in abilities/ages in one classroom.
            But many good teachers that leave say it’s not the kids, it’s constantly fighting the system that’s not addressing the kid’s needs is disheartening.
            Interesting to note from very recent research,that despite the small gains in test scores by various minority groups, the middle class Anglo kids’ scores have fallen.
            Other countries are doing better – our schools should be too.
            In mid 1970’s, major school district’s 8th graders here were reading two grade levels below. In late 1980’s area’s “good” suburb school’s 6th graders were reading 3+ grade levels below. Need to stop the bleeding.
            It can be done – even if the US educates ALL children and other countries do not.

  5. I am not a fan of this ‘positive’ history trend, where the most heinous crimes are re-made into something fantastic (like a 1940’s old romantic film)! I know maybe at some ages children are too young to hear of the grotesque, but by High school they should be told, and nothing should be glamorised for fear of causing offence. I know that in Russia they had been glossing over the finer details of the Stalin years, making it look good. Ignoring the millions of kulaks killed, the horrors of the collectivisation, the famines and so on. Its degrading to the memory of those who suffered, and doesn’t help us develop our humanity by forgetting what can occur in the world. I know history is only as reliable as the source, the author, the opinion; but the facts should be presented and children trusted to take that knowledge, and make their own decisions.

  6. …Imagine… Imagine what it would mean to the controlling forces in this country if children were raised to question them, demand transparency and hold these systems accountable, rather than continuing the trend of blind-allegiance. non-complacency and an absorption of lies. …because, hey, the indoctrination continues long after graduation, in my opinion.

    …Are we watching the evening news?
    …Are we subscribing to a system that tells us that we are “exercising our freedoms” when we cast our vote for 1 of only 2 (bank-owned) candidates for president?
    …Are we trusting that the FDA and CDC approvals/recommendations are an honest authority, in the best interest for public health?
    …Do we believe that the wars we are waging, today, to really be in the interest of our freedoms?

    …What if we stopped subscribing to ALL that is being spoon-fed to us as TRUTH?
    …What if we were encouraged and rewarded for critical thinking?
    …Over time, what would these practices mean to the controlling forces?

    I believe this to be where the answers lie. Our education teaches us how to COMPLY and ABSORB, and that’s the nation we’ve become. Therefore, we must break free to re-evaluate & independently research ALL that is handed down to us by authority as TRUTH.. Today. As adults. In doing so, we encourage and reward our children for doing the same.

    This is the only way that our corrupt history will finally stop repeating itself.

    • Thanks so much for commenting. Your words are similar to something I read on another blog about eating meat–the only reason we eat cows and not dogs are because we were told early on that that’s what we do. And in India, they don’t eat cows because that’s what they were told. It’s not (always) about the animal; it’s about what we were taught. It’s always about what we’re taught.

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