History ‘lives in us’ despite lawmakers’ efforts

The novelist William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Someone should remind Indiana legislators, who are trying to nail down what students can learn about history.

They seem to think history and the past are a set of indisputable facts, frozen in amber. Yes, historical facts exist, but our understanding of them and our relationship with them is always changing.

“No historian will stray from the facts,” Indiana University historian Eric Sandweiss told me. “And yet every history student and scholar know they are building on the facts. They are finding new facts that haven’t been found before, and they are seeing them and connecting them in new ways.”

It’s important to know key names, dates and events from the past, in other words. But studying history also means digging into complexities and making and supporting arguments, including arguments about right and wrong. “There’s got to be a kind of active dialogue that takes pace,” Sandweiss said.

Indiana legislators, like lawmakers in dozens of other states, have introduced bills that would shut down dialogue and limit how teachers talk about race and other potentially controversial topics, such as sex and religion. The bills are part of the conservative campaign against “critical race theory,” although they don’t use that term.

The truth is that history isn’t comfortable. We have to wrestle with it and interrogate it. To understand history is to understand that it lives in us.

Fishers High School history teacher Matt Bockenfeld

Senate Bill 167, the subject of an eight-hour committee hearing last week, and House Bill 1134, scheduled for a committee hearing today, are virtually identical. Both declare that school curricula and teaching materials may not include certain concepts: for example, that any race, sex, religion, etc., is better or worse than others; that anyone bears responsibility for past actions committed by their group; and that anyone should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or distress because of their identity.

The prohibitions apply to public and charter schools and to college and university teacher preparation programs. The bills also require K-12 schools to post learning materials online, let parents opt their kids out of classwork they object to, and restrict classes that include political activity.

Critics say the legislation will cause teachers and schools to steer clear of controversies and painful episodes in American history to avoid being accused of causing discomfort.

“The truth is that history isn’t comfortable,” Fishers High School history teacher Matt Bockenfeld told the Senate Education Committee last week. “We have to wrestle with it and interrogate it. To understand history is to understand that it lives in us.”

An exchange between Bockenfeld and the bill’s lead author, Sen. Scott Baldwin, R-Noblesville, was eye-opening. Bockenfeld said his students will study the rise of fascism and Nazi Germany, and “we’re not neutral on Nazism.” But Baldwin said that “we’ve gone too far” if teachers oppose Nazism; he said they should “provide the facts and the kids will formulate their own viewpoints.”

Baldwin walked back his comments the next day, possibly after someone suggested downplaying the Holocaust wasn’t smart politics. In an email to the Indy Star, he condemned “Nazism, Marxism and fascism” and said students should learn about them “so we don’t experience them again.”

But that still leaves a lot of unexplored territory. Are teachers supposed to be neutral when they teach about 250 years of enslavement of people of African descent in North America? Should they share the pros and cons of Jim Crow racial segregation? If they teach about the rise of Nazism, can they mention that American eugenicists inspired Hitler? What about the Klan’s dominance in Indiana?

And how should they deal with the “discomfort” that Black, Jewish and immigrant students may feel when discussing these topics? (I suspect that’s not what the bill’s authors had in mind).

Sandweiss, the IU historian, said studying history is about “collecting a sense of how you got to where you are, what you’re equipped with, and how you’re able to use it to make your own history.”

The story of how we got to where we are with race in America is difficult. Teachers may make mistakes when they teach it. Students may feel discomfort, maybe even guilt. But they deserve to know true history if they’re going to be up to participating in our democracy, which has always been a challenge.

“Everybody knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” Sandweiss said. “Let’s teach about ways it’s not easy.”

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