Change Is Hard
I grew up feeling that I was living the future: the liberal views on Civil Rights that I heard at school were the tide nation would need to ride. In my 11th grade textbook, though, the story of Reconstruction was told as a case of Northern Carbetbaggers, ill-prepared ex-slaves and cruel Northern troops making a mess of the South. By the time I reached graduate school the Civil Rights era had come and gone, and Eric Foner’s magesterial book on Reconstruction completely changed how we saw that eray. We now learn of the many efforts the former slaves made to be educated, to own and manage property, to get married — and how Southern whites resisted and undermined this healthy change. A change in the history books matched a change in society, and both accorded with my own views. But.
Change is as change does. So that whole liberal ethos lost when Reagan won, and indeed when his rise signaled the triumph of a very different world view, which generally held sway through the two Bushes — the Clinton drama aside. I had to get used to the idea that change can come in either direction — towards your views, or against them. So when the Texas school board says that it thinks our school books overemphasize liberal ideas and don’t give enough space to Reagan and other cultural heroes of theirs, I am willing to believe they have a point. Any shift in our lives is lively to cause us to re-examine and re-view the past. But then comes the problem.
The fact that views shift does not mean that we need to erase the old and substitute the new. Rather it means we need to train students to think, to compare and contrast, to weigh and evaluate. Just as elementary school kids are debating whether Pluto is a planet, and high school biology classes should understand why calling evolution a theory does not mean it is a myth, or likely to be wrong, but, rather, that it is a reflection of scientific thinking in which we constantly gather and evaluate evidence, cognizent of the limits of what we know, or can know — so too we need to approach history as subject to examination and change. The problem in Texas is not that they want to promote new heroes, it is that they don’t want students to question all heroes, all villains, and all explanations. That is the process of thought we need to bring to students — and once they have it, they can and should apply it to everything — form Pluto to Darwin to Reagan. The goal is to encourage thinking, not to insist on the outcome of thought.