I'm Trying Not To Take Sides
These are complicated times, and in the interest of serving ALL students (and avoiding as many problems with parents as possible), I’m renewing my commitment to avoid pushing my own personal values and ideology and just sticking to the facts.
It’s not that hard in early American history. I mean, sure – there’s the issue of Columbus and whether he “discovered” America or not. Rather than give my own opinions, I just give kids facts. I’ve prepared a sheet of links to over 200 scholarly sources and primary documentation for them to peruse at their leisure, and they can decide for themselves whether or not what Columbus did was “good” or “bad,” or whether the Vikings got here first, or the Chinese, or that guy from Africa whose name I can never remember.
The whole clash of early settlers and the natives can be a little tricky, but no worries – I just present all sides of the issues and let my 8th and 9th graders figure out what it all means. It’s not my job to label something as “genocide” or “natural progress” or “God’s will.” Maybe smallpox blankets were a tacky move, maybe not. Maybe scalping and raping and burning down homes and bashing out babies’ brains was savage, maybe not. There were good people on both sides.
I’ve compiled some sketches from the impacted tribes along with a few scraps of sympathetic white accounts, some primary sources from European colonists, and deleted scenes from the Director’s Cut of Pocahontas. (I realize some would argue the Disney movie isn’t an accurate portrayal of history, but as I’ve already explained, I’m trying not to take sides.)
Young people are naturally interested in the Salem Witchcraft Trials. It’s a topic that’s become so sensationalized in our culture that it’s used as an analogy for everything from the anti-Communist hysteria of the mid-20th century to any effort to hold elected leaders accountable for poor behavior. You think I’m wading into THAT minefield when we cover it in class? No way!
Instead, I’ve got the trial transcripts in the King James English, some commentary from Cotton Mather, and Samuel Sewell’s apology years after. Were the condemned actually witches? Not my call to make! Should we burn people at the stake for acting strange or based on the testimony of teenagers faking seizures? Maybe. Maybe not. I’m suggesting students read the transcripts and consult the dozens of scholarly analyses available to decide what really happened on their own. I’m trying not to take sides.
The American Revolution! Independence! Freedom! Yeah, also not going there. We’ll cover the documents and discuss some of the main events happening around that time, but I’m not sure it’s a good idea for me inflict my own perception of what “caused” the Revolution, let alone whether or not the rebels made the right call. Better I just share some random facts for them to connect (or not) on their own and leave my personal patriotism out of it.
Maybe America was something new and special, maybe it wasn’t. Maybe the Declaration of Independence is the finest document ever written, maybe it’s not. Maybe the Bill of Rights turned out to be a pretty good idea, and maybe it’s all crap we can ignore when inconvenient. I love those documents, those ideals, and even how beautifully they were phrased – but… I’m paid by tax dollars. Not here to brainwash. Stick to the facts.
So I’m not pushing my patriotism on kids any more than I’d try to convert them to my faith or expect them to conform to my own narrow ideas about civility and human decency. It’s not my place to tell them what to believe, just to provide un-curated information related to state standards and stand back. They may then peruse mankind’s collected writings at their convenience and decide for themselves whether or not representation should or should not be considered a prerequisite for taxation. I’m trying not to take sides.
Indian Removal, slavery, the Age of Jackson, the Civil War, Westward Expansion, War with Mexico, Imperialism – I refuse to get sucked in to ethical, philosophical, or religious discussions about “right” and “wrong.” It’s not my place to refute the idea that the moon landing was faked, that the earth is flat, or that immunizations cause autism.
It’s entirely possible science isn’t even a thing that happens. Perhaps it’s a massive worldwide conspiracy run by antifa agents and Bill Gates to support their child sex slavery pizza parlors and brainwash our children into becoming gay Muslims. Personally, I suspect science is a real thing but gets stuff wrong sometimes and not all scientists are as objective as we’d like. But I’m not committing either way on any of these hot-button issues. That’s not my place. I’m trying not to take sides.
I remember a young man asking me last year whether or not it was true that Africans had evolved in such a way as to be “well-suited” for slavery – that they had the “mark of Cain” and God had set them aside to serve whites and play basketball and that’s why they were so good at both. I was personally horrified, of course, but race is a loaded issue and, as I’ve been reminded repeatedly over the years, it’s not my place to inject my personal opinions in class. For a moment, I wasn’t sure how I’d be able to maintain my professional distancing as I’ve been so often berated to do.
I asked him to give me a day to consider what he’d asked. That evening, I compiled the writings of Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, and nearly a hundred other black intellectuals in American history, along with the speeches of famous southerners, Klan leaders, and transcripts from several Mel Gibson films. I also provided links to some of the more violent white supremacy websites along with a suggestion he Google #BlackLivesMatter. If he really cares about the issue, he can spend the next several decades pouring over the studies, experiences, opinions, and diatribes of those on all sides of the issue. It’s really not my place to take a position on the “humanity” or “equality” of this group or that – especially when it might offend certain stakeholders in the community.
Students complain that other history teachers “tell them stories” about events in history or talk about famous historical figures. I’m like, woah! Spoon-fed, much? Telling stories is just a euphemism for “putting your own spin” on historical events, not to mention it requires deciding which events are important enough to discuss in the first place. That sounds like a job for your pastor, parents, or local politicians to decide.
Talking about “famous” figures is even worse. Some people consider Thomas Jefferson a Founding Father and an icon of American History. Others believe he’s a monster for his relationship with Sally Hemmings (one of his slaves). One side treasures his words and ideals, the other condemns his hypocrisy. You think I’m going to so much as MENTION him when literal blood is being spilt over whether or not to tear down his statue? The last thing we want to do is connect anything in the news with something from history – the mere suggestion that we can potentially shed light on current events by considering comparable events in our past can quickly become both a very unpleasant local news story and a fireable offense. This is “history” class, kids – not “people alive today” class. Look it up.
Seriously. Look it up. Alone on your own time and without any guidance. It’s not my job to help you sift through the overwhelming volume of noise and nonsense out there and decide which parts form a common national narrative. I’m just here to teach you the facts. You're 15 – work out the rest on your own.
Was John Brown right to decapitate those settlers in front of their wives and kids? Not my call. Should women have the right to vote? Hard to say – there are good arguments on both sides. How well did Communism actually work out in the Soviet Union? Gosh, I dunno… there are all sorts of reasons they may have decided to move away from the “U.S.S.R.” thing and tear down that wall. Who am I to say? Did “executive privilege” place President Nixon above the law? Maybe – have to ask your parents about that one, not really an appropriate question for American Government class.
Was it necessary to execute all those Jews to save Germany? Maybe – I mean, I have some opinions on the subject along with research by experts who’ve spent lifetimes studying such things and exploring how such evils occur and why we don’t do more to speak out against them. But, I mean… there was a reason they threw the intellectuals in there with the homosexuals and the Gypsies, so maybe it’s best I avoid taking sides.
As it turns out, even my last recourse of “facts only” education presents a political and social dilemma. Honestly, I thought tossing my kids unguided into a forest filled with yellow ribbons was about as fair and balanced as any educated person could be expected to attempt. My narrow-minded ideology, however, that some things in history are supported by “evidence” while others simply aren’t (even while acknowledging that many topics fall somewhere in between) is apparently just as hurtful as when I suggested that websites ending in .edu or .gov might be slightly more reliable than Bubba’sConfederateBasement.com with all of its misspellings and that bright red twinkling background with the synthesized version of “Dixie” playing far too loudly.
I’ll do better. From now on, we won’t just cover facts. We’ll give equal time and merit to anything anyone anywhere has ever made up, tweeted, posted on Facebook, ranted about at a family dinner, or wormed their way onto TV (or YouTube) to talk about. Out of “respect for the office,” we’ll prioritize the bizarre ramblings of anyone paid by our tax dollars, no matter how bizarre or destructive the content of their remarks.
It will be difficult, at first, fighting the urge to distinguish between propaganda, science, documented reality, cultish beliefs, and anything else that comes flying our way, but I’m sure I’ll get used to it along with everything else. Besides, I’m trying not to take sides.