If you read enough (or any) conservative media when talking about public education, and you would think our high school history books are just teaching kids how racist we are.
But this week, I was helping my teenage daughter study for a history exam, and I had a chance to dive into her history book. (I must confess, I had been anticipating this moment when she was born and I was envisioning my arguments with liberal teachers.)
Surprisingly, I thought her history book was a very fair and balanced recap of history. The bigger crime wasn’t the ideological leaning of the book but that our kids are expected to learn 50 years of American history in a few weeks. Each chapter was anywhere from 30 to 50 years of American history.
That our kids don’t know U.S. history, or the significance of milestone events, is more attributable to how much we ask them to cram into a multiple choice test than the politics of their teachers (though both are obviously factors).
In this case, she was working on the Civil War era, and I have to confess, I read something in her book that I had never thought of before. The Northern Union wasn’t simply opposed to slavery on moral grounds, though it was a significant factor. One of the primary issues with slavery was that it was killing the economic opportunities for the working class.
Like illegal immigration today, the influx of slaves was taking away work opportunities from poor or lower middle class workers who needed jobs. After 35 years of studying politics, I was shocked this had not occurred to me before. In this sense, slaves were essentially the illegal immigrants of their day.
And of course, we’ll all make the mistake of looking at the Civil War era through the lens of how we see the world today. This being another issue with our history classes, our teachers do a terrible job of helping kids understand the perspectives and norms of the time they are studying.
It’s because of this defect that kids now see our Founding Fathers as slave owners instead of the architects of the greatest country in the history of the earth.
Perspective is critical in understanding why any person or people do what they do or did what they did. That working class people saw slavery as competition for jobs doesn’t automatically make them selfish racists. It was simply the pragmatic reality of the time – as so much of history is.