History should be about learning—not comfort

Jim Chrisinger is a retired public servant living in Ankeny. He served in both Republican and Democratic administrations, in Iowa and elsewhere. 

Florida Republicans just whitewashed their history curriculum. Slavery wasn’t so bad. Look away from the rape, torture, and selling children like livestock. Did you know that enslaved people learned skills from which they benefited (slavery was a jobs training program)? Create a false equivalence by saying that both sides committed violence during the civil rights era (spoiler: sometimes Blacks shot back).  

Florida Republicans aren’t acting alone. Republicans across the country have been and continue to march history back to the time when white, male, Christian, straight, native-born men wrote the textbooks, centering themselves. That’s the history I learned in school. 

MAGA Republicans accuse those writing history from a Black perspective—like the 1619 Project—of “hating America.” Seeing the full picture and wanting America to live up to its ideals reflects more love of country than hate. We can take justifiable pride in much of our history while not erasing the shameful parts.  

There is no one true history. Historians have perspectives, biases, and work from different sources. The 1619 version no more tells the whole story than the traditional version. We should always be prepared to use our critical thinking skills in reading history. At its best, history is an ongoing conversation in the present about the past.  

Republicans insist on only teaching history that makes them comfortable. Many GOP-controlled states have enacted legislation limiting “Critical Race Theory” or “divisive concepts” in education. Iowa’s 2021 law bars mandatory training by state and local governments and school districts that teaches or advocates “race or sex scapegoating” or “race or sex stereotyping.” Similar laws often forbid teaching that anyone has “responsibility for actions committed in the past” or should “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” on account of their race.

A version of history designed to keep some students comfortable almost guarantees the discomfort of others. Whitewashing how slavery existed in America may comfort white students, but what about Black students? Are they comfortable with being taught about our country’s past in a way that panders to white victimization? The goal is learning, not comfort.  

Americans are courageous people; we don’t have to hide from or deny the past. We can face it full on. We’ve always poo-poohed “old Europe,” stuck in their calcified ways. We’re the forward leaning, make-the-future-happen people. Act like it.  

We study history to understand where we’ve been and how we got here, so we can better write the next chapter. When people don’t know (or just deny) the full story of slavery, Jim Crow, and the lived experience of their legacies, it’s hard to be fair to to African-Americans in 2023.   

America’s path will continue to twist and turn and backtrack at times. But in the long run, history only goes one way: forward. Historical amnesia will not move us forward. We have to choose: go back to the 1950s and before or continue making progress toward our more perfect union. More history majors would help.  

Top illustration of Clio, the muse of history, in a 17th-century painting by Johannes Moreelse, available via Wikimedia Commons.

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