Teaching Human History

“In this room, our colleagues across history have abolished slavery; granted women the right to vote; established Social Security and Medicare; offered a hand to the weak, care to the sick, education to the young, and hope to the many, doing ‘the People’s work.’”     

 Nancy Pelosi, this week          

The idea that history is written by the victors is—like most cliches’—an inadequate framework for learning about the powerful forces that have shaped our world. I say this as an American baby boomer, born when the future of the United States seemed limitless, and its citizens were justifiably proud of having saved the world from evil. The history I was taught, in the 1950s-60s, was full of stories about our scrappy upstart nation that freed itself from British colonialism, survived a civil war—then made the world safe for democracy.

When I was in my 20s, I spent a summer backpacking in Europe. I stayed in cheap hostels and went where the Eurail pass would take me. At the very end of the trip, the day before flying home out of Munich, I went to the concentration camp in Dachau.

It was a gray and rainy day, and I had the place nearly to myself. Dachau had been open to tourists for 10 years, but—some 30 years after the camp was liberated—there weren’t many exhibits and no docents, then. That’s not to say that the place felt empty. Far from it.

I’ve been in some historic places in my lifetime, but nothing like Dachau.

The first thing people notice is how the village, with its flower boxes and tidy homes and beautiful church, sits next to the main camp. I remember it as an easy walk from the train station, through a lovely old German town, which encompassed tens of thousands of German citizens in the 1930s and 40s, most of whom claimed they had no idea what was going on behind camp walls. Of course, those people assumed they would be the victors, and get to tell the story of their glorious conquest.

The camp—in 1977—was mostly just cleared space, its buildings torn down. There was a bunkhouse or two, and a horrific crematorium to see, some photos on display. But the power of being there was in the voices.

I sat on a bench, under my umbrella, for a long time, listening to and sensing what had happened, around me and under my feet. I can’t explain it any better than that. Whatever evil happened there was not erased, not by a long chalk.

Clint Smith, who wrote the powerful How the Word is Passed: A reckoning with the history of slavery across America, had a wonderful piece in the Atlantic this week, about Holocaust remembrance.  Smith begins by noting that Germany has a global reputation for handling their past with honesty and reparation. I’ve written about this myselfwanting to believe that nations can be redeemed, can be humbled, admitting guilt and teaching their children to do better.

Smith’s piece mentions stumbling stones or solpersteine—small brass plates in the sidewalks of places where Jews once lived or were assembled and sent to their deaths. There are more than 90,000 of these now, in 30 European countries. Schoolchildren raise money to plant more of them.

I was in Germany last month, and our walking tour docents frequently pointed these out. Americans whipped out their phones and took photos. I did not hear voices, but seeing them was sobering. In fact, Smith says that not everyone thinks putting brass plates in places where people can walk on them is the right thing to memorialize the loss of six million people. But, at least, the Germany citizenry is wrestling with the questions around its own guilt. Smith:

In recent years, Americans have seen a shift in our understanding of the country’s history; many now acknowledge the shameful episodes of our past alongside all that there is to be proud of. But reactionary forces today are working with ever-greater fervor to prevent such an honest accounting from taking place. State legislatures across the country are attempting to prevent schools from teaching the very history that explains why our country looks the way it does. School boards are banning books that provide historical perspectives students might not otherwise encounter.

There was, IMHO, way too much celebrating last week over anti-teacher, anti-‘CRT’ school board candidate slates NOT sweeping into power. Data on this, however, is a little murky:  

Ballotpedia, a nonpartisan website that tracks U.S. politics, has so far counted 237 school board winners who took a stance on hot-button topics, including race and gender. Of those, 55 percent took the conservative side on at least one issue, compared with 43 percent who took liberal stands (the remainder had mixed positions).

Hardly a resounding victory, and the thing about school boards is that they’re the first access point for anyone with a political beef (real or imagined). You don’t even have to have children in that school, or live in the district.

There’s dark money behind school board races and vocal protests these days—and the reprehensible folks and thinking at Hillsdale College haven’t gone away. There’s also the Heritage Foundation and its faux education ‘research.’ The state of Virginia just removed Martin Luther King, Jr. from the elementary social studies standards.  

I’m happy that the nation seems to want to pull back from the political abyss—thrilled, in fact—but there’s a reason why lots of school boards, if not a majority, turned over last week, and the impact is just being felt. These are the people who do not believe we need redemption, to admit guilt and teach our children to do better. These are people who—as my friend and new State Board of Education member Mitch Robinson says—find the made-up problems in education more useful than the solutions.

There is no more important study than our own history. Nancy Pelosi illustrated that beautifully in her graceful step-down speech, as first female Speaker of the House this week. If we can’t learn from our own accomplishments and failures, we’re doomed.

Thank You, Supporters

Dear Friends,

Well, we gave my opponent, She Who Shall Not Be Named, a run for her money, but lost by 195 votes.

I learned a lot of things about the place where I live–and remain convinced that big changes are coming to Solon and Kasson townships, and we need to get out ahead of them. We need to stop pretending that there are no problems with housing, that our lakes are (and I quote) ‘sparkling clean’ and not in need of protection, that broadband is a luxury, and that nothing will ever change in our rural paradise.

Change is coming–we’re surrounded by natural beauty, and the largest bodies of fresh water in the Lower 48. Compared to other states, property is affordable. Unless policies are put in place, and residents understand what happens when expensive housing is dedicated to vacationers and workers can’t afford to live here, we’re on a destructive path.

During the campaign, I never misrepresented myself or my beliefs about what’s needed here, in the heart of Leelanau. I know that to some, I was just one of those ‘liberal’ newcomers–but the data and doorknocking told me that there are more and more of us here, concerned about the same issues. We did some good work for future elections, and I’m proud of that.

Why did we lose? For starters, the largest church in the district drew out its voting members, in an attempt to keep Proposal 3, which kept our current (clear, regulated) abortion laws in place, from passing. (It did pass, 56-44, statewide.) I was also relatively unknown in a place where family roots and reflexive voting habits go deep.

THANK YOU to everyone who voted for me.

Thank you to Allison Kimpfer, Mary O’Neill and Julie Kradel who ran against me in the primary, then turned around to help my campaign. We agreed, last spring, that our mission was proving that four smart Democratic women were willing to take on the Charles Grassley of Leelanau County, and we accomplished that.

There is a great deal of good news–it was a blue night for Michigan, and we held the County Commission. The three good proposals were all solid winners. All the work done by Voters Not Politicians, back in 2018, has paid off. It’s a fairer and more progressive state, un-gerrymandered–maybe even a model for other states–and both houses of the state legislature flipped blue, for the first time in 40 years.

Michigan has been a purple state, forever–and now our election results match our popular beliefs. That’s a great feeling. I’m going to be represented in the State House by Democrat Betsy Coffia (photo below), who has promised me that she’ll talk to teachers first when someone gets a big idea about how to ‘fix’ public education. That’s awesome.

Thanks for being on my side, readers. I appreciate all of you.

Vote with Heart, not with Hate

There’s only you and me—and we just disagree…  Dave Mason

It’s been fascinating, this weekend, reading about our actual President’s heartfelt plea to save democracy, and the opposing party’s response: Gas prices (with a healthy side of chicken-fried lies) are going to get us elected, so let’s double down on the destruction. Whoo hoo!

I’ve been voting for 50 years, and there’s never been an election like this one. I know we keep saying that this is the most important election of our lifetime–we say it every two years—but holy tamales. The thought of a Republican-led House launching four impeachments simultaneously, with Jim Jordan preening on the news every night? Nauseating.

And yet, here we are.  

In those 50 years, I have voted for Republicans. In fact, I used to vote in the Republican primary in the district where I lived for 20 years, because it was the only way I got to endorse mainstream candidates over crazypants candidates. I knew that Democrats would never win there, so it was a prophylactic exercise.

That was back in the days when the truly whacko candidates were pruned in the primaries. Unlike 2022.

Those of you who were voters in 2000 might remember compassionate conservatism, George W’s election slogan. I was in the .52% margin of voters who chose Gore over Bush, but I can’t remember anything about Gore’s campaign message. Something about a lockbox? Compassion, on the other hand—compassion and action—I can get behind.

God knows we need it. A more compassionate electorate, one concerned with actual facts about our rapidly changing climate and its outsized impact on populations in poverty, about human rights, about all the policy tweaks we could make to lift up our families and neighbors… what’s not to like?

We’re moving in the wrong direction, away from voting with our hearts toward voting with anger, hate and naked self-interest. Voters have been not only given permission to stomp all over their community’s needs, but are now being encouraged to wrest control of election results from township and village clerks.

Two stories about compassion:

A little more than a year ago, one of the communities I hope to represent on the County Commission, Maple City, raised a civic outcry against having a Dollar General in the center of town. Maple City is a modest little town, with a Post Office, a cute restaurant and a gas station, and lots of similarly modest homes. But its residents did not want to be a Dollar General town, or labeled—as Dollar General Corporate did—a ‘food desert.’  After rejecting Dollar General, that parcel of land was designated as space for six small homes—ground was broken, with lots of enthusiasm, a year ago, and the community seemed poised to welcome six new families. Compassion had beat out Dollar General, it seemed.

Right now, however, there are only foundations in place for four of the homes. A request for a tax rebate was soundly rejected, as the price of building new homes and availability of builders rose. Speaking with the people of Maple City, while door-knocking, there’s a lot of confusion and angst over promises made and promises stalled—or broken. The gap between the haves and have-nots—the thing they were trying to prevent by not plunking a Dollar General down in town—has not decreased.

Also—I was horrified to read that Leelanau County is among the top five counties in Michigan for parents opting out of the standard series of vaccinations that Michigan schoolchildren are required to get before entering public schools. More than 10% of our local schoolchildren are now entering kindergarten and the 7th grade unvaccinated.

This number, statewide, used to be vanishingly small, with waivers granted only on evidence-based need, and herd immunity not threatened. For children whose medical conditions contraindicate vaccination, herd immunity is the thing that lets them go to school safely. I taught school for over 30 years, and we never had to deal with anti-vaccine parents.

It’s not a thing we can ‘disagree’ about. It’s not a parents’ rights issue–I strongly believe in parents’ rights. It’s a rejection of science, for starters, overlaid with ginned-up political rage. It’s a rejection of the genuine needs of other people—vulnerable children who need protection!–in order to win some unnamed contest.

So. Vote with heart, not with hate. Compassion and community hang in the balance.