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Education Should Make Us Uncomfortable May 3, 2021

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, travel.
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I value education more than almost anything else in life.  It is the mechanism by which we grow as individuals, and become better people and citizens.  There are few higher purposes in life.

In the seventh grade, I was required to memorize Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  I did so, but I didn’t know what it meant.  It was only subsequent education that I understood just what every single word in the speech said.  Today, 50 years later, I can still recite it verbatim, and tell you a powerful story of the meaning behind it.

I am reading stuff today referring to critical race theory, and the 1619 Project, and about how various states are passing laws against teaching such controversial topics.

I don’t quite get what critical race theory and the 1619 Project are all about, but I can tell you one thing.  If they make you uncomfortable, you should learn about them.

I was made comfortable in my education, of history, civics, social studies, and current events in my public school years.  In retrospect, some of the approaches to learning these topics then are laughable to me today.  I became uncomfortable when I learned that we sent Japanese immigrants to concentration camps, and that we more or less massacred most native Americans through the early 1900s, and much more.  And worse, that we vilified and murdered workers who were seeking a decent pay and work hours in the 1900s.

So my understanding of my country became more nuanced.  I still think the United States has the best system and greatest democracy ever, while recognizing that there is substantial room for improvement.  That’s what ongoing education buys you – an appreciation of what you have, coupled by a desire to make it better.

Most people don’t go that route.  Instead, they like narratives that make Americans the unabashed good guys.  Well, guess what?  We weren’t, and we aren’t.

That doesn’t make us evil; it makes us human.  Like people everywhere, we do the best we can.  I have had the opportunity to meet and talk to people in many different countries, on their home turf.  In many cases (Spain with Franco, Ukraine over the past decade, Serbs in the late 1990s, Swedes in World War II), their national histories contain ugly periods.  Yet the people I talk to strive to make the future better.  Mykola, in Ukraine, was a Chernobyl baby, born within the restricted zone, and told me that he snuck out to participate in the massive government protests of 2012.  “I supported my extended family and couldn’t get into trouble,” he told me.  “But I needed to be there.”

That’s what good, ordinary people do when confronted with their national history – they work to make things better.  If we know and appreciate our history, we can too.

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