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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Honest education to suffer

by John Brummett | July 18, 2021 at 1:44 a.m.

In Oklahoma, a public school teacher could now get fired and a school could face a loss of accreditation if a white child went home after history class feeling bad about the nation's plainly racist past.

There might be this fateful after-school conversation in the kitchen:

"I can tell something's wrong, sweetheart. What's bothering you?"

"I think white people like us have been bad to Black people in America."

"Why would you say such a thing, dear?"

"Did you know our founding fathers had slaves? Did you know Thomas Jefferson believed white people were superior to Black people? Did you know the Civil War was about people down here wanting to keep their slaves? Did you know that white people in Tulsa burned a thousand Black people's houses because a Black teenager was falsely accused of doing something to a white woman? The police let him go; they said he probably just tripped into her or stepped on her foot. Why have white people been so bad?"

"Where are you getting all that?"

"At school in history class from Mr. Jones."

"Well, we'll see about Mr. Jones. He has no right making you feel this way. We never had slaves. We never killed anybody. And you certainly didn't. You're just an innocent child. He has no business making you think we did or you did."

Woe, then, unto Mr. Jones under a new law from the Oklahoma Republican legislature and new rules rushed out for the fall term by the Oklahoma Board of Education.

That parent could file a formal protest against Mr. Jones and the entire school under a subsection that says there can be no teaching in Oklahoma schools that "any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex."

In its literal phrasing, no one could reasonably disagree with that rule. A teacher should never tell a child that he or she should feel guilty on account of ancestral conduct. A teacher's job is to instruct, not judge.

But in the way the rule likely will work almost inevitably in our volatile and polarized culture, teachers will be rendered susceptible to sanction whenever lesson materials turn to uncomfortable fact.

They will justifiably concern themselves with what some kids might say at home that would stoke their parents' fears and resentments of ... well, historical facts and generational changes in thinking, once considered human advancement and a positive thing.

Teachers certainly will become vulnerable to harassment for the sin of teaching.

They might rush through the Civil War to skip quickly to the Wright brothers, which is a very nice white-America story.

We'll likely end up with myths protected, varnish re-applied and a less-educated--or you could say more-ignorant--society.

Trouble might happen first in the Tulsa school district, which put out a statement last week that it had not and would never tell any student to feel guilty--and thus had not violated this rule and would not--but that it would continue to teach historical fact the way it had been teaching it.

That will be fine until some bright and sensitive white child of conservative parents in an insular household goes home pensive.

Oklahoma Republicans rush to say they are not seeking to prevent teachers from imparting historical fact. They deny they are hamstringing teaching.

They say they merely attempt to prevent "woke" teachers from berating innocent and impressionable white children with notions that they are privileged products of a culture in which embedded racism's effects continue.

Teachers should never berate children, period. But if the historical record invites thinking that white children are privileged, that racism is embedded, and that effects do continue, up to and including this new statutory Oklahoma cover-up, then let thinking begin.

A young Black woman asked the Oklahoma board last week why no one was concerned about how she felt. She got no answer, only a quick five-to-one vote on racial lines expressing no concern for her.

The answer to her question completes the equation. The board wasn't concerned about her because embedded racism's effects continue.

Thus Oklahoma newly imperils the already perilously disparaged profession of teaching.

It prioritizes a single child's feelings over a classroom's honest education. It undercuts the once-honored notion that well-educated kids today will make for a better America tomorrow.

And we darned sure need a better America tomorrow.

We need one where our racist foundation is eroded, where a child isn't told to feel guilty but educated for purposes of voluntary introspection, where teachers are more respected rather than less, and where parents stand ready and able to help their kids handle what they learned today.


John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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