Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
- George Santayana (The Life of Reason, vol. 1: Reason in Common Sense)
Last year a seventh grade kid approached me about a problem he had with the Texas history text. He pointed to a photograph of a Ku Klux Klansman, pointy-hood and all. It was a photo probably from the 1920s, in no way flattering to the Klansman, and it accompanied a couple of paragraphs explaining the resurrection of the Klan in that era. The book explained what some did to fight the Klan (not enough, but that’s a topic for another time).
“That’s racist, Mister!”
I asked him why he thought the photograph was racist.
“That’s a Klansman! They killed people!”
Yes, it’s a Klansman, and yes, Klansmen killed people unjustly. That’s part of history, a part of history we need to remember to prevent it from happening again. I explained that the photo did not endorse the Klan in any way, and that section of the book actually spoke against their actions.
“You’re a racist, Mister! That picture is racist and should be cut out!”
Our conversation had taken an inexplicable (to me) turn, away from the content of the photo or the book, into uncharted realms of inanity.
“Why don’t you take your complaint to the principal, and tell your parents about it,” I said. “I think this is a conversation you and I should have with your parents present.”
Of course, the student did nothing I asked. Within a week I had a handful of other students complaining about the picture. Some of those conversations were better, but not much. Students had a difficult time understanding how reading about racism was not practicing racism. Learning about the mistakes of the past in order to avoid them, was the same as making the mistakes, the students argued.
This occurred shortly after several parents in another Texas school district had complained about the use of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because it contains a slang term for “negro” now considered particularly offensive when used by whites. The complaining parents were black. Never mind that this great American novel’s point is that racism is wrong, slavery an abomination to a just God, and that Jim is much greater a man than those who held him captive in slavery.
I worry that too many people lack enough education in history to make rational decisions about what should be considered “good to read” and what should genuinely be kept out of curricula.
Case in point: A janitor and student at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis (IUPUI) was investigated for creating a “hostile work environment,” and one of his offenses appears to have been his reading of a history of a defeat of the Ku Klux Klan in South Bend, Indiana. It is unclear from details we have, but it appears complainants could not tell the difference between reading the history of a Klan defeat, and reading a book promoting the Klan.
Should we worry? I’d like your opinions, and experiences if you have any; details of the Indianapolis case below the fold.
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