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?

Everything’s a Circle

Social psychologist Dr. Paul Slovic has conducted experiments to determine how and when people feel compassion. I’ll quote directly from Genocide Watch:

“In one experiment, psychologists asked ordinary Americans to contribute five dollars to feed Rokia, a starving seven year old girl in Mali.  About half would donate the five dollars.  The same percentage would donate to save Moussa, a little boy from Mali.

But when photos of both Rokia and Moussa were shown, the percent who would donate dropped to thirty percent.  And when the photo of Rokia was shown representing 21 million hungry Africans who could be fed by a group of trusted relief organizations, the percentage who would donate dropped to less than ten percent.

Professor Slovic calls this phenomenon ‘psychic numbing.’  He believes human beings are usually unable to feel compassion for large numbers of people.  The more victims, the less compassion.”

**

In a recent interview, George Clooney stated that for years he has tried to appeal to people’s hearts regarding the ongoing genocide in Darfur, but it hasn’t worked. He’s given up. So now he is going to appeal to various countries’ economic interests in the region, in hopes of getting these countries to intervene.

How could a man like George Clooney not get people interested? I assumed it was because there is just Too Much Shit going on in the world—we simply can’t care about it all. Now I’m wondering if maybe, as the study above suggests, we won’t care. Not until we hear a specific story (the “hook”), or until we can relate (there’s always the question of possible underlying racism), or until the horror is so beyond our realm of thinking that we can’t help but pay attention–e.g., The Holocaust.

**

A few weeks ago, I read an article about a Holocaust survivor who, every year, tours schools speaking about his ordeal. A particular quote struck me:

“We have to keep it alive so it doesn’t happen again,” a teacher at one of the schools said.

I hear this a lot. What do we mean when we say “it”? Six million specifically? Does the genocide have to be as efficient as the Nazi system—do the victims need to dig their own graves? Do engineers need to be involved, figuring the quickest way to exterminate millions of people? Does it have to be unique as well as horrific?

Because, in reality, genocide is occuring. Right now. Today. In various places around the world. And it has been occurring in every decade since World War II.

Children in OUR world are being forced to kill their own parents. They are being kidnapped, drugged, and turned into soldiers. Seven year olds. Ten year olds. Women and girls are being raped tonight, now, by men who burned their homes and killed their families. Millions have been, are being, murdered and displaced.

There’s a quote: Everything’s a circle. Nothing’s ever new.

Is that true?