Adopting a Politics of Love and Liberation in Our Schools Can Save Our Democracy
Teresa Ann Willis
On January 6, 2021, mobs of mostly white Trump supporters stormed the United States Capitol building armed with weapons, outrage and what they believed to be the truth about a Donald Trump victory in the November 2020 presidential election. Despite election results that recorded a 306 to 232 electoral college win for Biden, many who backed the president believed, without any evidence to support their beliefs, the election was stolen and President Trump should serve another four-year term. Two weeks later, Trump’s 1776 Commission released its report on the teaching of U.S. history in schools — a report widely criticized for its poor scholarship and blatant lies. Trump ushered the commission into existence the day before the November election, he said, to restore patriotic education and eradicate “decades of left-wing indoctrination.”
In September 2020, then-presidential candidate, Joe Biden, also weighed in on the teaching of history. Speaking at a Kenosha, Wis. town hall held in the wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake and the civil unrest that followed, Biden asked, “Why aren’t we teaching history in history classes?” then proceeded to extol the accomplishments of African Americans routinely left out of the curriculum.
Both Trump and Biden understand education’s role in shaping our understanding of who we are as Americans, and thus, our democracy. Though Biden revoked Trump’s 1776 Commission during his first week in office, neither approach to teaching history will help us become a healthy democratic nation.
President Biden correctly understands U.S. history hasn’t been taught with the complexity and nuance needed for students to become informed voters and citizens. But if we want to prevent today’s students from becoming tomorrow’s insurrectionists, we can’t just change what is taught, we’ve got to change how we teach, and doing so will require restructuring teacher education programs. Teacher candidates must be trained in teaching historical thinking skills — skills that equip students to critically analyze and evaluate history by reviewing primary sources from multiple perspectives, thereby enabling them to make intelligent, evidence-based arguments.
Trained in historical thinking, students will determine for themselves the validity of claims like, “there was no Holocaust” or “slavery wasn’t really that bad for African Americans” or “the election was stolen.”
Interrogating primary sources will push students to confront what James Baldwin rightly called a history that is “longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” Liberated from corporate textbook versions of American history, students will be compelled to confront historical narratives with their eyes wide open. Classrooms will come alive with students engaged in robust inquiry and thoughtful meaning-making. Under the guidance of competently trained teachers, they’ll also practice being civil and respectful in the face of sometimes extreme dissonance and discomfort — skills sorely lacking in our body politic.
That our public education system has always been political (even though we pretend otherwise) is an understatement. Before the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, Americans were educated in segregated schools. It’s true, schools populated by Black children, teachers and staff were grossly underfunded. Often ignored is that some of those schools had an abundance of what is necessary to produce informed, courageous citizens, perfectly positioned to create a healthy representative democracy.
In the best schools, Black children were educated by teachers who loved on them just as hard as their parents loved on them. These teachers affirmed their Black students and as a result the children in these schools knew they mattered. They believed they were worthy human beings despite dominant cultural narratives that screamed otherwise.
They also were held to the highest academic standards. In her book, Their Highest Potential, Vanessa Siddle Walker, professor of African American Educational Studies at Emory University, spotlights one school, the former Caswell County Training School (CCTS) in Yanceyville, North Carolina. CCTS was the only accredited school in that county when court mandated desegregation took root: “Ironically, then, at the end of segregation, black students left their accredited high school to be desegregated into a white school that was not accredited,” Walker wrote. Teachers at CCTS recalled pushing students to their highest potential because they knew “giving other children what you would want for your own was the basis of good teaching and of a good school program.”
In other segregated schools, children were taught how to vote through elaborate election simulations even though their parents and teachers were barred from voting. The teachers and students who populated some of these Jim Crow-era schools became our Civil Rights Movement sheroes and heroes. The staff, teachers, students and parents of these segregated Black schools serve as models for what’s needed today.
It’s true more history teachers are using primary source documents to teach history. It’s also true many lament that because they weren’t adequately taught American history, they feel neither confident nor comfortable teaching it. If we’re going to begin teaching in a way we’ve never before taught, we will have to become comfortable being uncomfortable — until we find our sweet spot.
As a first step, we must acknowledge and understand our own relationship to American history. The question, “In the history of the United States, where were my ancestors and how are my people connected to past events?” may not be the most comfortable place to begin but begin teachers must. That some educators also cling to ignorant notions about our history speaks to the urgency of overhauling teacher education programs. After a classroom discussion in a 2016 professional development institute I attended on slavery and abolitionism, one tenured teacher remarked about enslaved people, “Well they had food and shelter.”
Similarly, the furor over Nikole Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project speaks to why we’ve got to come to terms with our history and with who we are as a nation. Premiering in the New York Times Magazine in 2019, the series reframes America’s historical narrative by “placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of African Americans at the very center” of our story. As a nation, we will never be able to love other people’s children like they are our own until we first reconcile who we’ve been to each other, how we’ve treated each other and why.
Walker stated that the teachers who trained Black children for democratic citizenship were engaging in subversive acts. Training all students for democratic citizenship, arming them with critical thinking skills and liberating them from the myths, lies, omissions and erasures of American history may still be considered subversive, but it is no less essential.
It would be naïve to think our education system is the only one requiring systemic change if America is to become her best and highest self. It would be equally naïve to think teachers are singularly responsible for the task at hand. Creating schools that become sites of liberation and love will require a commitment from all stakeholders — politicians, power brokers, education administrators, teachers, parents, everyone. America, will you commit? Will you love our children and make real our democracy?