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A cracked mirror on our past: After Floyd, teaching history in the US will be harder

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TEACHING history as a conservative has never been easy in the United States, where the vast majority of those who teach history subscribe to some version of Leftist politics or are too afraid to challenge the prevailing progressive orthodoxies for fear of damaging their professional standing.

However, teaching history since the death of George Floyd in police custody on Memorial Day in my hometown of Minneapolis in the American state of Minnesota will be even harder.

This will be especially true for teachers who are committed to presenting their students with as many sides of a historical argument as time allows, and refusing to proselytise on behalf of the latest politically correct pedagogical fads.

For those of us who adhere to these antediluvian practices, the road ahead will be fraught with danger and liable to leave one unemployed and possibly unemployable unless one keeps a very low profile indeed.   

Driving along Lake Street in Minneapolis recently, where the worst of the rioting occurred following Mr Floyd’s dreadful death, I was appalled by the destruction I observed. Seeking out my late father-in-law’s floral business, I was delighted to see the impressive Sullivanesque building undamaged.

Still, a couple of blocks away reminded me of the London Blitz, entire buildings looking as if they had been bombed by the Luftwaffe. The term ‘war zone’ has lost its emotive power through overuse, but I could think of no other description as I drove around those familiar streets that took the brunt of the first wave of iconoclastic violence that has now spread throughout the Western world, most especially where English is spoken as the primary language.      

While the physical damage has been catastrophic and will take billions of dollars and decades to repair, the damage done to America’s cultural infrastructure will have an even greater impact as the responses to Floyd’s death are already adding up to what increasingly looks like a cultural revolution.

This will negatively impact the way history is perceived and taught to young people, many of whom are already woefully ignorant of the past.

As I write this, legions of self-described ‘social-justice educators’, highly-paid ‘diversity consultants’, practitioners of ‘counter-hegemonic education’ and ‘critical race theorists’ are sharpening their ideological claws and taking aim at what will take place in the classroom after Labor Day, the traditional end of the summer holidays in America. 

But lest one think that the impetus driving this comes exclusively from the remote fastnesses of academia, think again. No less an institution than the Smithsonian-affiliated National Museum of African American History & Culture, with its close ties to the educational establishment, recently added a section to its website called ‘Talking About Race’.

In the section on ‘Whiteness’, which identifies those characteristics common to most white people in the United States, readers are exposed to what sounds like the enthusing of a white supremacist.

We learn that white people ‘value self-reliance’, adhere to ‘rigid time schedules’, believe that ‘hard work is the key to success’, and prize the ‘King’s English’.

But there is more. Caucasians also have a penchant for ‘objective, rational linear thinking’, ‘delayed gratification’, ‘the Scientific Method’, ‘bland food’, being ‘polite’ and ‘the nuclear family’, all of which, with the exception of ‘bland food’, I encourage my students to embrace, wherever they happen to fall within the arbitrary taxonomy of skin pigmentation. I do so because I want all of them to lead happy, productive and fulfilling lives.

That this divisive tripe is disgustingly patronising to my students who happen not to be white is there for all to see. Even so, I would be lying if I said this will not affect how I teach.

No longer will I be able to freely discuss race as the social construct I know it to be. Gone too are the days when I can praise my adopted country for being one of the least racist nations on earth and for the extraordinary progress it has made since the end of World War II when it comes to matters of race.

Nor will I be able to draw attention to the systematic dismantling of the cruel laws – laws against interracial marriage, for example – that prevented blacks from participating fully in the dream now offered to all Americans.

And heaven forbid I ever again compliment a student for saying he looks beyond the accidentals of skin color. For alluding to Martin Luther King’s magnificent and most beautiful of all injunctions concerning race, namely, to judge people by the content of their characters and not by the colour of their skins, will now be downright dangerous for any teacher who values his or her career. Nowadays, it seems, colour blindness is tantamount to racism. 

Indeed, after Labor Day, teachers will be on tenterhooks and forced to weigh every word they say. As all teachers know, teaching is unpredictable and things do not always go to plan, so the effect of these strictures will be seriously to curtail what takes place in the classroom, dampening that wonderful serendipitous spontaneity that can make teaching such a joy.  

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Dr Bernard Carpenter
Dr Bernard Carpenter PhD is a semi-retired history teacher.

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