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OPINION – There is a debate rising in our society, relating to the teaching of American history in our schools.

A movement is afoot in school districts, state legislatures, and more to curtail or outright ban the teaching of episodes of U.S. History in which racism caused suffering, displacement, or death to groups of people. The stated reason for these proposals is a desire to “protect” students from historical facts that may upset them or “make them feel bad about themselves” as descendants of those who caused the harm.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there is a “proliferation of bills outlawing honest history, culturally responsive and inclusive teaching and the banning of books that uplift these concepts in K-12 Classrooms.” (Jalaya Liles Dunn, SPLC Spring 2022 newsletter)

This effort to censor the truth is alive in the State of Wisconsin. It is crucial that we be watchful and outspoken in order to ensure that such efforts do not succeed in our state or in our local school districts. For the teaching of truth, no matter how painful, can only bring growth and healing to our children and our communities.

Teaching model for the U.S.

A model of how the teaching of truth in schools benefits rather than harms children and communities can be found in Germany. Since 1992, Germany has required a curriculum on the Holocaust for all secondary school children, including trips to museums that lay bare Germany’s history of genocide against Jews and other minorities. Germany sought “the creation of a pedagogy of responsibility” and “a strong focus on active remembrance” in its mandatory curriculum. (Boschki, et al “Education After and About Auschwitz in Germany…,” Prospects, 2010)

While the German system is not perfect, its overall ethic is one that we ought to champion. “A pedagogy of responsibility” is the very opposite of the argument that American schools ought to suppress ignominious aspects of our nation’s history and teach, instead, only what is admirable.

Some examples of what has been presented in Wisconsin

In February of this year, Governor Tony Evers vetoed a bill that would have barred Wisconsin schools from teaching students and staff lessons on systemic racism and sexism. “The legislation was introduced in 2021… as part of a movement among conservatives fearful of children learning ways racism has permeated institutions, potentially leaving white students feeling guilty.” (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Feb. 7, 2022)

This summer, the Muskego school district banned the teaching of the U.S. internment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor through the use of a book of historical fiction in an AP English class. (Insider.Com, June 30, 2022) This is only one example of myriad efforts across the country to ban books that seek to engage students in an honest evaluation of xenophobic, discriminatory, oppressive, and murderous acts against of People of Color, immigrants and native peoples in American history.

Moving forward

What is the best way forward for communities and societies that have racial injustice skeletons in their past? To bury and move on? Or to confront and grow? Are children so fragile that they should not be confronted with difficult and challenging aspects of teaching American history? And how disrespectful to curriculum developers, authors, and teachers to suggest that they cannot share such information with nuance and sensitivity to help students to process the material appropriately.

The example of Germany teaches that “a pedagogy of responsibility” is not only possible, but preferred, as a way to a more compassionate society. Witness, for example, during the worldwide refugee crisis of the past 10 years, how Germany stood out from other European nations as they welcomed immigrants to their country, while others closed their borders.

Laws and policies that are now being proposed and adopted across the country are based on the misguided belief that children must have an eternally rosy picture painted for them in order to love their country. But, teaching the truth can never hurt American children; it can only build their compassion and patriotism and help them to become the kind of adults we want to lead us in the future. It behooves all of us to pay attention and speak out when such proposals reach our community, as they undoubtedly will.

Rabbi Dena Feingold serves Beth Hillel Temple, is co-president of Congregations United to Serve Humanity and is a member of the Kenosha Coalition for Dismantling Racism.

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