by Anita Miller
The question I asked a teacher last week seemed timely and direct: “What are you telling your students today about the Capitol break-in?”
“Maybe I could mention it in a government class,” she said after a moment’s hesitation, “But not in a history class.”
The unthinkable continued to unfold on the TV screen. The last time the U.S. Capitol was under siege, we were only 38 years past declaring independence from a mad king.
Fast forward 207 years, and it has happened again, this time not by a foreign invader, but by American citizens, incited to violence by our own President, who, by the way, sat far away in safety after stirring up the insurrection.
The teacher I spoke to (not from Hays County, by the way) said her students were only 15 and 16 years old, too young to remember the pre-Trump years. Seems like it might be good to consider that they are also only a few years away from the voting booth, making decisions that will affect the democracy that many people have worked for, and died for, and believed in as a heritage to be protected at all costs.
Teachers have no right to bend facts, or insist that students agree with them. They do have the right, however, and the obligation, to examine facts with students, help students look at what is happening in the world, and make decisions based on available facts. That’s what education is about. Forcing one-sided views onto students, or presenting only one view in class, is an unacceptable teaching practice, but if fear of discussing controversial events keeps teachers silent, they might be in the wrong profession.
Yes, a few people may get riled up if their children hear ideas that disagree with the parents’ perspective. That’s the chance you take when your child goes to school. There were parents, and teachers, who once believed that ideas of an independent nation, and worse than that – a democracy! – were hogwash. As things turned out, it wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
People need facts to make decent decisions. Those who think facts should be hidden, disguised or discounted don’t truly believe in democracy, which may be messy at times, but is way ahead of whatever is in second place. Information, discussion and disagreement are essential to its character.
America has been a highly admired example of democracy for more than 200 years. Dissent? We’ve had a lot of it, but peaceful dissent. We cannot, must not, let peaceful dissent be destroyed, and it is our task to teach our children what peaceful dissent means. It is not mob rule, not breaking into the halls of Congress with guns and clubs. It is not the refusal to accept the result of an election.
Those who can’t tolerate disagreement are well advised to move to a country that doesn’t tolerate it. There are still some of those countries around, with many of their residents clamoring to get to the United States as soon as possible.
The essential elements of our classrooms – information, discussion, and the pooling of ideas and ideals – fulfill the purpose and promise not only of education, but of democracy. When that stops, democracy is dead in the water.
The Lady of Liberty must have shed a tear or two last week. What happens next is in our hands alone. Let us ardently hope and pray that we are up to the task of working together in peace, diligence and dignity in the weeks to come.