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Research & Thoughts

History Lesson #17: Whose Historic Heritage is it?

We've heard lately of the outrage in teaching the Critical Race Theory (CRT). I personally had no problem with this particular idea IF it is taught to balance what in the past could be called "patriotic history" or conqueror's history.  U.S. history has been taught (as do other nations, no doubt) to show itself in a good light to make us good citizens. I can see blending CRT into a seamless history narrative to show what our country was really like. This is a nation of immigration, of pushing aside native Indians for the land, of importing blacks to work the huge plantations of crops, of throwing off the British yoke of economic oppression for the sake and need to conquer the entire country; all of these things need to be taught in a seamless approach.


I read recently in Madison's own Ithmus, a free quality paper they publish monthly (January 2022), something that made me want to look further into what happened to standardized education in this country. I agreed long ago that history needs to be taught with an objective approach, but today's history seems to be further segmented. Ruth Coniff, author of "The Unraveling of public education in Wisconsin," talks about a tribal college in Hayward helping to launch a conservative charter school further south in Oconomowoc -- Lake Country Classical Academy. This school has a "1776 curriculum," Trump's answer to CRT, and she refers to this revelation as shining "a light on the unraveling of public education in Wisconsin." More specifically, this is the unraveling of our historic heritage.


The problem may be one of the unregulated education of charter schools. We had a new one open up here in Beloit, called "The Lincoln Academy," which I'll look at further in a moment. But to get more into what has outraged me here into noting the danger of this unraveling of public education, from the viewpoint of these Ojibwe college authorities: "The U.S. government has just shredded Ojibwe knowledge and indigenous knowledge. So for me, the big thing is educational sovereignty. Parents have the right to educate their kids the way they see fit."


Yes, they do. At home. If we have a proper educational system, all history being taught would be objective over-arching history, summarizing the experiences of all the people who've lived it, and stimulating the children into looking at their specific interests. But have we ever had that? I came to my history master's degree late in life; in 2006 I was 53 years old. In high school history was my most dreaded subject. Learning dates and names was never my strong suit; still isn't. Did I at that time believe I was being indoctrinated? Perhaps. I had the misfortune of communicating with that history teacher after getting my master's and learned he was a Trump supporter, too, as are many in my high school graduating class. I have never been one to support white supremacy, not ever, though I have voted Republican in the past (not since Reagan's first term, though). And when I attended my first history class, just for fun, with a very liberal history professor while going for my BA in communications, I was both shocked and delighted, and switched my major.


While going for my BA in Green Bay, I discovered the horrors of Columbus and began to promote changing Columbus Day to Diversity Day. I still remember my conservative professor, who said to me we shouldn't try to change history. I didn't want to change it, I replied. I just want the truth to be known. These conflicting attitudes indicate that we have history teaching problems yet today.


Why can't kids learn real history? Because they might come to hate the U.S.? I didn't. Teachers need to have history sensitivity training, I think, to teach that attitude of the history players is what created those events, and how we're all human. Yes, even Lincoln.


"Right to educate how we see fit." Does that pertain to school systems? It shouldn't. Because it's part of what further divides this country into camps. You want a president like Biden to be a moderate, and yet he's got the lowest approval rating ever. Why? Because he can't satisfy a single one of these "camps." Tribal sovereignty wants to establish their own charter schools so they, too, can teach their kids any way they want. This is what Trump's reaction to CRT meant, his insistence that patriotic history is all that matters. This shows how the mis-election of someone who had no business being president continues to erode at that idea that we were or could still be "united states."


Coniff speaks strictly from a Wisconsin view. She says that in 2011 Wisconsin's legislature (under a GOP governor) cut per pupil spending by $554 across the state. Per pupil. That's a significant amount. If you were to watch a new T.V. series called "Abbott Elementary," you would see them struggling for lack of funds in a public school. And you would call teachers heroes for struggling against all kinds of odds. Even Democratic Governor Evers has had no luck raising the budget of spending on schools with his Republican legislature; well, you have to blame them as Evers was Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction. But the state continues to funnel money into these charter schools.


The situation is complex, we can telling from looking at Coniff's list of what entities can authorize charter schools:

UW's Office of Educational Opportunity, Milwaukee's common council, the chancellors of UW System schools, technical college district boards, the Waukesha county executive, and the state's two tribal colleges -- The College of the Menominee Nation and the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe College. Imagine all these 'lower case' unnamed people able to say parents have the right to chose how their kids are educated, and the possibility that this choice is racially biased.


The one thing I know about history is that there are two (or more) sides to every story. That's the problem with parental choice. What side do they want for their kids? If it's not objective history, it will only further divide us as people trying to live in a single culture. That's almost a laugh, isn't it? A single culture here in the U.S.? But I digress.


If a charter school is authorized by any of these lower-case entities, then they qualified for a grant from the state. To be clear, the one in Oconomowoc is a tribal-related entity, but it does not just serve tribal members. This academy's founder, Kristina Vourax, according to Coniff, noted, "We have a mixture of all backgrounds." The burden on the city where these kids come from to fund the school is astronomical, too. What does this do to other schools in the area? Are they operating at a loss?


Coniff ends her article with a bit of a whimper. "That cost includes our shared interest in maintaining high-quality public schools for all Wisconsin children." Well, yes it does. But what about solutions? Are there any? I'm suspecting that the normal subjects of reading and writing, and learning math to be able to perform in society are still being taught. Focus is more on computers than it ever was when I was in school. But the most divisive subject is history, and that's my concern here. If charter schools are allowed to teach history any way they want, we have an over-arching regulatory problem. Not that public schools have been doing better. But it sounds like charter schools are being allowed to further divide our historical roots.


Let's look at little closer at another example: The Lincoln Academy here in Beloit. Now I have to say, first off, that since moving to Beloit four years ago, our property tax has gone up over $700, and this with no further services added and no further assessment upgrade on our house. We lived in a town in Oconto County for 40 years and never saw more than a $100 increase /decrease in any given year. Can we relate this increase to educational changes?


I went to this charter school's website and learn they call themselves a "public charter."  Here's what I found about that designation:


A public charter school is a school that's publicly funded, free to attend, and run by independent contracts. Often, people will confuse public charter schools with private schools, but they are quite different in terms of funding, accessibility, and structure. Whereas public charters are free for students to attend, private schools are tuition-based and aren't regulated by the government. Private schools also tend to have looser regulatory standards, whereas public charters need to uphold an agreed-upon charter that's set up by a board. Public charter schools are also different from traditional public schools. Contrary to some myths, the biggest difference between the two isn't that they're regulated; it's how they're regulated. Traditional public schools follow a strict set of guidelines that are set by the school district. Public charter schools still need to follow federal laws and regulations, but they're not tied to a district school board. Instead, they follow guidelines that are set up by a separate, independent board. 


That would explain that increase in our property taxes, and no, we had no say. My husband said our Republican legislature had that say for us. Then I took a look at the curriculum, K through high school, and not a single history class to be found anywhere. How is not teaching history a solution?


Be assured that if objective history is not being taught at any grade level, people will pick and choose what to believe about our nation's history. Here's a good comment about how history is being taught today, and it appears it hasn't changed in 50 years:


Currently, most students learn history as a set narrative—a process that reinforces the mistaken idea that the past can be synthesized into a single, standardized chronicle of several hundred pages. This teaching pretends that there is a uniform collective story, which is akin to saying everyone remembers events the same.


Okay, this article was dated 2015, but that's not all that long ago, just previous to Trump.


I tried to sell an article on political correctness once, where I make the point that history teachers need better training so they know how to teach history. Instead of banning Mark Twain from the classroom, figuring out how to explain the racism in our history could have a positive impact on students, especially with the explanation about how we're all better people for understanding that we're all human. History is a humanities issue, after all. I don't understand how hard that can be. We ban what we don't want to face, what makes us uncomfortable, or can show us in a negative light. We need to see that negative light throughout our history to understand our country today.


One problem noted was that "When historians begin to explain and interpret facts and events, they are using their personal judgments and opinions." If they are trained properly, they will learn how to interpret those events using only the attitudes of those who lived and created those events, not their own. Maybe that's what we're missing today. No one should interpret the past with today's viewpoints.


No, it's not possible to teach everything about every immigration pattern or indigenous prehistory. Is it even possible to give them a sense of belonging to this world? Of course it is. If history teachers are taught to be objective, it will be amazing what they can teach. If they are freed of the restrictions of pretending that that our "American" history can do no wrong, then true immigration and true native indigenous history will emerge. It has to. Because that's what this country is.


Sources in addition to Ithmus:






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