“Virginia, the Old Confederacy’s Heart, Becomes a Voting Rights Bastion,” read an April 2021 New York Times headline after the state passed monumental voter protections. In the area of voting rights, Virginia has faced its history of discrimination and started on a better course for the future. But there is a long way to go. As we work to expand civil rights and liberties for all in Virginia, we need to keep facing our history and learning from it.
But you can’t learn from history if you don’t know what happened. The integrity of history education – and public education more broadly – is at risk in this election. It is easier than ever to vote in Virginia, and it’s crucial that you do. We can’t afford to go backwards.
Voting rights is just one of many areas where racism has “called the shots” in impact (and often intention) for far too long. Housing discrimination, the exclusion of majority-Black trades from labor protections, lynching, and even highway construction are all part of this history. All contribute to undue suffering and the untimely, violent deaths of Black and Brown people.
It’s not comfortable or easy to talk about these things, but they happened. And that discomfort is important. These histories have lingering impacts, and we owe it to each other to understand the histories in all their complexity so that we can work to reverse the impacts and ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself. The call to know about the atrocities committed in the name of whiteness is not a call to hate people who are white. If anything, it is a call to love – to love present-day Black people enough to care that the actions of past white people continue to cause harm.
The call to uplift previously suppressed stories is not a rewriting of history, either. The past isn’t a convenient timeline laid out like lily pads to be hopped between, one grand event to the next. The past is more like a swamp, full of circumstances and ideologies that at times intersect and contradict each other. Historians make sense of the mire, unearthing primary sources and untangling stories from them. Historians’ understandings are always changing and growing.
Education scholars and teachers translate those growing understandings in developmentally appropriate ways for different age groups. If children are our future, at some point they’ll need to contend with the truth of the past. That truth is not static, nor is it a single narrative.
Learning history might seem to be all about learning facts and dates. In the so-called Information Age, facts and dates are easy to come by. But history and humanities education offer so much more. In history classes, students learn to be curious, to think critically, to research, and to analyze and evaluate information. In literature classes, students learn to find themes and empathize with characters whose lives may be vastly different from their own. Humanities education teaches us to grapple with complexity and hold the tension between apparent contradictions as we grow in our understandings of the world we inhabit and the people we share it with.
These three lessons that we should strive to teach in schools – curiosity, critical thinking, and empathy – are the skills that empower voters. These are the skills that empower people, period. If reactionary parents succeed in censoring the difficult content out of public school curricula, students will lose more than the facts of what happened in the past. They’ll lose the very skills that help people distinguish between the truth and falsehood. Our democracy can’t afford that loss.
This November 2nd, vote to make schools safe for all students (a prerequisite for learning anything at all!) and to encourage the teaching of true, difficult, complex histories not inhibited by the fear of change. We cannot refuse to acknowledge the harms of the past and their role in the present. We must work to understand the past to build a future where every single person can flourish.