President Trump outlined the themes of his election campaign in what amounted to two publicly funded campaign rallies over the 4th of July weekend at Mt. Rushmore and the White House lawn with fireworks over the National Mall in Washington D.C. “Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children….This left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution…our children are taught in school to hate their own country, and to believe that the men and women who built it were not heroes, but they were villains,” were some of the claims he made.
Like so much of what the president claims, his words are designed to turn Americans against each other. To turn white against black and brown, to turn right against left, to turn everyone against public schools and teachers.
At my high school graduation in 1969 in Bethlehem, PA, I had the opportunity to speak to the graduating class about my views on our education, not because I had high grades, but because the school, in the spirit of change that was in the air, allowed a speaker to be elected in addition to the traditional Valedictorian. I spoke about some of the ways I felt our education had let us down. I felt our history classes had mythologized our founders and leaders, glossed over difficult issues like the causes of the Civil War and the Vietnam War which was raging at the time, and taught us that there was always a right and wrong answer that could be answered in a multiple choice question. I talked about the fact that black people were angry about the lack of equal opportunities they faced in the areas of jobs and education and that we weren’t being prepared for the fast changing future we would face.
I didn’t have the vocabulary at the time to name what that education lacked. But in the course of my working life, including a twenty-five year career as a West Virginia public school teacher, I identified it as the importance and the difficulty of teaching critical thinking.
President Trump does not want Americans to think critically. He wants them to see the world in simplistic terms of good or evil, right or wrong, blindly patriotic or anti-American. He wants to whitewash history and paint over the flaws of our founders and past leaders, ignoring the parts of our history we know do not live up to our ideals: the enslavement of millions of African Americans for two hundred years followed by a hundred fifty years of continued discrimination; the near extermination of Native Americans, the confiscation of their lands, their internment on reservations; some of the wars that we fought in order to either add to our territory or to ensure American control over other parts of the world for political or economic reasons.
Teaching children and young adults to understand both the good and the bad is important. You can celebrate our amazing scientific achievements while also noting when science was misused, the innovations in business and industry while also pointing out the environmental costs, the revolutionary ideas in self-government that the American experiment embodied to empower it’s white male citizens while at the same time denying equal opportunity to women and African Americans for centuries. Children, all citizens in fact, need the important skill of critical thinking: the ability to weigh facts and evidence, to see the world in its whole spectrum of color instead of only black or white.
I exhort all West Virginians to be willing to do the hard work of putting aside their emotional response to those who, like Donald Trump, call on them to love their country “right or wrong,” and instead love what’s right about our country and recognize what is wrong and do their best to fix it. And that includes voting for change in November.
Paul Epstein is a retired public school teacher and musician living in Charleston, WV