July 4 is the most sacred date on the American civic calendar. This year marks the 246th time Americans have celebrated the monumental achievement of founding a nation that, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, was “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
But the celebration comes with hard truths of history. The Fourth reminds us of Americans’ struggle, as the Constitution puts it, to “form a more perfect union.” The stain of human bondage sparked the Civil War. The suffragettes of the 19th and early 20th centuries fought for the right to vote. Japanese-Americans during World War II were forced into internment camps. And men such as Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr. paid with their lives to attain equality long denied to African-Americans. When we consider our past, sober reflection should accompany joyful celebration.
Crucially, such reflection must happen in our public schools. Liberals and conservatives alike have been guilty of playing down aspects of the American story in the classroom. Some on the left wrongly attempt to reduce our history to an ugly saga of patriarchy and racism. Others explain our country through an ideologically driven framework that sees America as permanently tainted by the original sin of slavery. Some conservatives have minimized how slavery, racism and discrimination have inflicted scars on our nation.
The vast majority of Americans—left, right and center—are united against indoctrination but supportive of candid instruction and thoughtful debate. Here’s a challenge for educators and all citizens: Let children examine our history with eyes wide open. Families don’t want their children caught up in political games. If we help them, our children can be stronger and more capable of discerning fact from opinion, discussion from indoctrination, than we give them credit for.
All Americans should be concerned about any indoctrination of children. But content addressing America’s difficult history of race relations, including today’s challenges, isn’t necessarily evidence of that. Achievements in the realm of civil rights have happened through an imperfect process spanning more than two centuries. The struggles of Americans like King and Frederick Douglass are lessons in striving toward the “more perfect union” of the Founders’ imagination. And they are worth teaching.
The American public-school system must teach both the galling and glorious aspects of U.S. history. As Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin has said, “We can teach all of our history, the good, the bad, and Virginia’s children will be better for it.” While it isn’t always a comfortable process, teaching children America’s complete history in an age-appropriate way, with parental awareness, is necessary for their own sake and for our country’s.
Doing so will help take politics out of education. It will prepare kids for the real world, where preventing hurt feelings doesn’t take precedence over facing uncomfortable facts. And it will instill in our children the ability to entertain ideas they may disagree with—an essential condition for a functioning democracy.
American exceptionalism is real, but fragile. Teaching the full story of American history will encourage the next generations of Americans in their own progress toward a more perfect union. America is still, as Lincoln said, “the last best hope of Earth.” If we tell the full story of the American past, it will help write a bright story of the American future.
Mr. Bennett served as U.S. Education Secretary, 1985-88.
Editor’s Note: Slavery, Civil Rights, and other divisive subjects are dealt with extensively in the FreedomCivics curriculum, especially in session 17.
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