Growing up in Brooklyn, I did not learn in primary school that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. Though my elementary school years spanned from the fall of 1954 through the spring of 1962, turbulent times for the civil rights movement, I was not instructed in news of the day and its historical origins. I recall no lessons on racial equality.
I didn’t learn how Columbus and his contemporary colonizers mistreated Indigenous people in the Americas and the Caribbean. We learned a smidgeon about the social structure and the longhouses built by the Iroquois tribes in New York, but I can recall not a word about the skill and advanced technologies used by Aztecs, Mayans and Incas south of what is now the border with Mexico. Nor about the tribal organizations of Native Americans.
Former Republican senator Rick Santorum possibly was caught up in elementary school “wisdom” when he said at a conservative political event, “We birthed as a nation from nothing. I mean, there was nothing here.” As someone who wanted to be president, Santorum should have known better, both as fact and as appropriate political speech. For his dumbfoundedness, CNN dropped him as a political commentator.
My education was Euro-centric, dominantly Anglo-centric, as if Spain’s contribution to America ended when it sold Florida to the United States in 1819. Hardly a mention of Spain’s, and later Mexico’s, series of missions in California and the Southwest. The few Spanish mentions revolved around quixotic quests—Ponce de Leon’s for the Fountain of Youth in Florida, Coronado’s for the Seven Golden Cities of Cebola in the Southwest, DeSoto’s Southeastern mission to find riches.
The Alamo was a symbol of pride, not just in Texas. We youngsters gobbled up Disney’s artificial version of events, never countenancing that Davy Crockett and the band of Texans he joined in San Antonio were what modern day onlookers would call insurrectionists trying to usurp territory recognized by our government as belonging to another country.
I’m not against building patriotism in the young through sugar-coated, perhaps incomplete, histories that build toward truth as students mature. But I am against outright deceits.
Take, for example, the just published yearbook of a junior high school in Bentonville, Ark., home town, you should know, of Walmart. For an as yet unexplained reason other than negligence (okay, maybe right wing politics had something to do with it), the school principal had to apologize for “political inaccuracies” that stated Donald Trump was not impeached “and that last year’s racial protests in the US were “Black Lives Matter riots” (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/may/26/arkansas-junior-high-school-yearbook).
It is not enough that Lincoln JHS said students could get their money back if they purchased a yearbook. Irreversible damage to the truth has been done.
Of course, disassociating the truth from reality has been a central part of the Republican playbook since Trump glided down that escalator in 2015. During the early stages of his campaign Republicans dismissed many of his falsehoods. Since his nomination and election in 2016 it is a rare Republican who calls out his lies and those of his sycophants and enablers.
Alternate realities are cultivated little by little, small lies followed by big lies.
A teacher at Bartram Trails high school in St. John’s, Fla., near Jacksonville and St. Augustine, photoshopped pictures of 80 girls in the school yearbook because, in her opinion, they were dressed inappropriately—they hinted too much at cleavage. A digital alteration lifted their apparels’ chest line to the teacher’s comfort level. It’s a judgment call, but one that should not have been made without prior notification.
It is a small reality check that pictures no longer can be trusted. Soviet-era photo manipulation is now available to anyone with a computer.
More troubling is the dismissal by many Republicans of the 1619 Project that attempts to put into context the racial history of our country that has contributed to the disadvantages faced by Blacks and other people of color. The University of North Carolina refused to offer tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones, who oversaw publication of the 1619 Project in The New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/25/business/media/nikole-hannah-jones-tenure-letter.html?referringSource=articleShare).
State legislatures, often gerrymandered bodies designed to elect Republican majorities, have passed or are passing laws banning the instruction of critical race theory, even in states where a majority of voters have elected Democratic governors who support the concept.
Barring classroom discussion is reminiscent of the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. Tennessee tried to muzzle the teaching of human evolution. Religious fundamentalism vs. scientific theory.
In removing Liz Cheney from GOP House leadership, and in actions at state level to make voting harder for citizens and easier for GOP officials to overturn the will of the people, we are sliding away from democracy toward a future of autocracy based on lies.
Unless our schools remain oases of truth, our future is bleak.