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Students of Jefferson County Colorado Give the Nation a History Lesson

Right-wing critics adhere to a rigid ideological script that has no room for student protest. Yet, along with the students, there are parents, teachers, and even the educators in charge of the AP curriculum who are saying history should never be sanitized.
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When high school students in Jefferson County, Colorado walked out in protest against the right-wingers on the school board who purged their history curriculum of content they deemed "unpatriotic" they probably learned more in a week of direct action than they could learn in a year of going to class.

Not content to write a letter of complaint, or sign a petition, or tap "Like" on a Facebook page - these young people hit the streets in the grand tradition of civil disobedience in America; the same tradition the Jefferson County school board seeks to airbrush out.

Gretchen Carlson of FOX News calls these inspiring young people a bunch of "punks." And the president of Jefferson County's Board of Education, Ken Witt, calls them "pawns" in a scam perpetrated by (who else?) the teachers' union. How terribly disrespectful Carlson and Witt (and others like them) are in dismissing the students' actions and claiming they cannot think for themselves.

Right-wing critics adhere to a rigid ideological script that has no room for student protest. Yet, along with the students, there are parents, teachers, and even the educators in charge of the AP curriculum who are saying history should never be sanitized.

I don't expect people like Gretchen Carlson or Ken Witt to be cognizant of the fact that it was a small group of African-American eighteen-year-olds who sparked the lunchcounter protests in Greensboro, North Carolina in February 1960 that contributed mightily to the historic process of transforming the nation's race relations.

Neither do I expect them to know anything about the young people who succeeded in bringing down the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen after a generation of their peers were sent off to fight and die in Vietnam but weren't old enough to vote for dogcatcher in a local election (winning us the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution). And I doubt if Carlson and Witt ever heard of George Orwell who wrote: "Who controls the past controls the future. And who controls the present controls the past."

Young people today have lived their entire lives under the shadow of multiple foreign wars, the worst economic collapse in 75 years, and governing institutions dominated by Koch Brothers plutocrats that seem wholly unresponsive to the needs of the people. They've been exposed to terrorist attacks and beheadings by America's vast array of enemies, and are now urged to get behind yet another American war in Syria. They've lived through the dashed hopes of the Obama presidency, and they've been subjected to fossil fuel industry propaganda telling them to bury their heads in the sand about global warming.

They've also lived through the Occupy Wall Street movement's exposure of the bankers' crimes, and ongoing racial conflict like we've seen recently in Ferguson, Missouri. The same week their protests broke out calling for critical thinking in their American history courses the world saw the giant People's Climate March in New York City. The student demonstrations in Jefferson County are about the present as much as they are about the past.

Given what they've seen throughout their childhoods it's not surprising that these kids would sense that the jingoistic version of American history that their right-wing school board wants to spoon feed them isn't up to snuff.

It's doubly meaningful that Columbine High School is one of the schools the Right has targeted since it was the site of one of the most horrific mass shootings in American history. Do the right-wingers on the school board also want to purge the Columbine shooting from the curriculum because it might reflect poorly on the NRA?

The student activists of Jefferson County show us that the younger generation that has climate change and a million other possibly catastrophic forces dumped on its lap has the potential to rise to the occasion and steer the world toward a better place than their parents and grandparents left for them.

In 1980, when Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States was first published and a few high school teachers assigned parts of it in class he received dozens of letters from students who were either intrigued or angered by what he had written. Many of them expressed their dismay that the exploitation of Native Americans had been whitewashed out of the familiar narrative about Christopher Columbus "discovering" America. Most of them figured if they had been lied to about the seamier side of Columbus "sailing the Ocean blue," then maybe they had been lied to about other aspects of history as well. (Zinn used to joke that the Columbus part of his book sparked the most fierce backlash because it's in the opening paragraphs and many of his most vociferous critics probably never read past the first few pages.)

Contrary to popular belief, history doesn't deal with simply piling up a bunch of dead facts about dead people. It deals with interpreting the meaning of past events and the role of human beings in shaping those past events. Historians aren't walking Wikipedia pages. Someone should explain this to the Jefferson County school board and the Louie Gomerts over in Texas who have somehow come to oversee the content of history textbooks.

Frederick Nietzsche famously differentiated in The Use and Abuse of History "monumental" history from the "antiquarian" (like Civil War re-enactors) and the "critical." What academic historians do (including high school textbook writers) is critical history. What the right-wingers want is monumental history: a grand narrative that reinforces all of the myths of our past along with uncontested power relations. Wall Street bankers and big corporations come out looking really good, while "disrupters" of calm, i.e. those who engage in social movements and civil disobedience, are to be omitted or ridiculed.

We've seen this phenomenon before when the Right seeks to purge our history of anything that might reflect poorly on past elites or power relations. William Bennett, Liz Cheney, Allan Bloom, D'Nesh (the money launderer) D'Souza, and many other right-wingers have sought to take a page from the authoritarians' playbook and re-write American history to throw the most favorable light on their would-be ideological soul mates.

In 1992, during the quincentennial ceremonies of Columbus reaching the Western Hemisphere the Right ginned up "controversy" over the idea of acknowledging the genocidal effects of Spanish colonialism on indigenous populations. A few years later, right-wingers were "outraged" again over a Smithsonian exhibit of the Enola Gay that deigned to include a few words about the victims of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

A few years earlier, Allan Bloom, a Cornell professor who was scared shitless by the anti-apartheid "shantytowns" that had sprung up on campus, wrote The Closing of the American Mind (1987). Bloom whined about "political correctness" on college campuses and railed against Black Studies, Ethnic Studies, and Women Studies. He became a darling of the Right and a best-selling author by comparing "political correctness" on college campuses in the 1980s with what had taken place at German universities under the Weimar Republic in the 1930s.

One of the great ironies of Bloom's authoritative indictment of multiculturalism was its timing. He identified the "crisis" not in a period of liberal dominance, but when Reagan conservatives for years had been setting the agenda of the nation's political discourse. The Closing of the American Mind also affected the debate about the nature of American freedom at a time when millions of people living under real tyranny in Eastern Bloc countries were looking to the openness and pluralism of American society as an inspiration that progressive change might be possible in their own societies.

Right-wingers always overreach and try to erase or bend history to fit their pre-conceived ideological notions. We owe the students of Jefferson County our deep gratitude and appreciation for standing up to power and reminding us about the importance of critical history being taught in our public schools. By engaging in civil disobedience they've taken it a step further. Their actions speak louder than any words. And hopefully they'll take their protests all the way to final victory! Throw the censors and Commissars off the school board! Recall them! Embarrass them! Dog them! Such actions are part of a long tradition of militancy and direct democracy that runs throughout American history (if one cares to look).

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