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Column: ‘Divisive concepts’ keep us from finding common ground

For the Valley News
Published: 5/15/2021 10:30:13 PM
Modified: 5/15/2021 10:30:12 PM

As the many columns and letters in the Valley News have indicated, HB 544, the ”divisive concepts” legislation proposed by Republican legislators in New Hampshire, is accomplishing its intended mission: It is dividing us instead of bringing us together.

A recent New York Times essay by Michelle Goldberg describes the rationale for bills like HB 544. The GOP senses that President Joe Biden’s legislative proposals have widespread support. To thwart his agenda and keep his initiatives off the front page, GOP-controlled state legislatures are proposing bills like HB 544 designed to keep contentious cultural issues like anti-racism instruction in the forefront. By persuading its base that “woke” liberals “want to make their kids hate their country and feel guilty for being white,” the GOP can dominate the news cycle, spread lies and initiate divisive debates.

HB 544, which includes the word “race” nearly 50 times, is a byproduct of former President Donald Trump’s ill-starred effort to rewrite the social studies curriculum for America’s public schools.

Trump alleged that public schools were teaching children to believe that those who built our country “were not heroes, but rather villains,” thereby creating a “radicalized view of history” that “lacks perspective, obscures virtues, twists motives, ignores or distorts facts, and magnifies flaws.” To address this deficiency, Trump created the 1776 Commission to develop a “patriotic curriculum” that would emphasize “the history and principles of the founding of the United States in 1776.”

Both HB 544 and Trump’s executive order creating the 1776 Commission assume one’s perspective on history is based on a compendium of unassailable facts learned exclusively in school. If that were the case, my perspective on the world would be identical to that championed by the 1776 Commission, for the history I was taught in the public schools I attended in West Chester, Pa., mirrors that advocated by the commission’s January report.

During my school years I learned that the Founding Fathers were patriots who declared their independence from the British, revolted against a government that imposed taxes without representation and wrote a Constitution whose precepts and laws are timeless and inviolable.

I learned that the Union army won a Civil War that preserved our nation and put an end to slavery.

I learned of our nation’s westward expansion, how settlers conquered the wilderness, built new towns and farms, and heroically fought off savage attacks by Indian tribes.

I learned that in the early 20th century we joined our European allies to win the First World War, and that in the 1940s we joined them again to defeat Hitler and the Japanese, who attacked us at Pearl Harbor.

I learned of the laws that would end racism and poverty, and our entire school gathered to watch rocket launches that would ultimately place a man on the moon. I also learned of our nation’s efforts to prevent the spread of communism by taking a stand against the placement of missiles in Cuba, by sending troops to defend freedom-loving nations across the globe, and by creating the Peace Corps.

The history curriculum I experienced was precisely the kind advocated by the 1776 Commission.

My sense of history now, however, is markedly different than it was in 1965, when I graduated from high school. It changed not because of courses I took in college, but because of the events that took place over my lifetime and my life experience.

The decade immediately following my graduation led to serious questions about the well-being of our country. The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the riots that ensued, the turmoil surrounding the 1968 election, and the expansion of the Vietnam conflict all led me to question the narrative about our country I learned in high school.

The events that followed were even more troubling: the Watergate break-in, the release of the Pentagon Papers and the misbegotten ending to the Vietnam conflict.

If we couldn’t believe what our leaders were telling us now, how could we believe what our history teachers had taught us?

My perspective on history was affected most by my personal experiences.

I chose a career in public education instead of the private sector.

I chose to move to different states, live in different communities, attend different churches and participate in wide range of civic activities. These choices all affected my views on the events of the day and altered my view of history.

Donald Trump and I grew up during the same time period and witnessed the same events. So did Bill and Hillary Clinton. Our perspectives of history are different and informed by our personal experiences, more, I think, than what we were taught in high school.

Some who witnessed the events of the past 60-75 years might conclude the current system is racist, misogynistic, unfair and in dire need of improvement. Others who witnessed the same events might conclude the current system as fair and just. If thousands of people draw different conclusions about the history we witnessed together, how can we expect to reach agreement on the impact of events that took place during earlier decades and centuries?

If we hope to end divisiveness, we need to acknowledge that we all see the world differently and accept those differences. If we continue to contend that our beliefs prove that we are right and others are wrong, we will never achieve the mutual understanding needed to make democracy work. If we hope to end divisiveness, we should look for the areas we can agree upon and build on those.

By enumerating the topics that are divisive and, by virtue of prohibiting their “dissemination,” effectively banning them from debate, HB 544 does just the opposite. For that reason, it should be opposed by those who hope to seek the common ground needed in a democracy.

Wayne Gersen, of Etna, is the former superintendent of the Dresden School District.

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