Thursday, March 17, 2022

Playing "Follow the Money" with History

Boston Tea Party or Amusement Park Ride

The culture wars being waged in state legislatures around the country are making teaching an impossible profession.

There’s a rock, and a hard place, and then there’s a classroom. Consider the dilemma of teachers in New Mexico. In January, the month before the state’s Public Education Department finalized a new social-studies curriculum that includes a unit on inequality and justice in which students are asked to “explore inequity throughout the history of the United States and its connection to conflict that arises today,” Republican lawmakers proposed a ban on teaching “the idea that social problems are created by racist or patriarchal societal structures and systems.” The law, if passed, would make the state’s own curriculum a crime.

This all reminds me of when I used to "help" my sons with their history lessons in elementary school.

I used to play a game with my sons that I called, "Follow the Money." Looking back on it from the perspective of today, I realize that although I saw myself as helping my sons with their history lessons, I probably wasn't helping their teachers navigate the precarious norms on acceptable classroom instruction.

The rules for "Follow the Money" were simple. No matter the historical event, no matter how it was presented in their history book, I'd challenge my sons to dig a little deeper and try to find the financial angle to the story that the textbook failed to emphasize or omitted altogether.

To take an easy example, in the chapter on the American Revolution there's the story of the Boston Tea Party, where Americans tossed tea into the harbor rather than pay a new tax. Let's leave out the part of the story where the colonists tried to pin the crime on native Americans. That's a whole 'nother crime that's not called out as a crime in the history books. Let's focus for now on the economic angle. The textbook usually explains this story with the patriotic cry for liberty, "Taxation without representation is tyranny." Dig a little deeper, I'd suggest. Were the colonists more upset about arcane rules of government, or taxes, however they were imposed? Leave out "without representation" from the quote. Would the cry "Taxation is tyranny" still have accurately captured the colonists' sentiments? My sons' schooling was before the modern "Tea Party" protests, or else I could have used the modern libertarian slogan of "Taxation is theft" as support for the suggestion that "taxation" was more important in the colonists' slogan than "representation."

But the modern "Tea Party" hadn't arisen yet when my sons were in elementary school. Instead, I'd suggest that my sons look ahead in their history text just a chapter and read about the conflict our first President, George Washington, faced in office. Namely, the so-called Whiskey Rebellion. In case the details are sketchy in your own memory, I'll give you time to review it in Wikipedia. (Don't forget to drop a fiver in the donation box to support all the times you rely on Wikipedia.)

The Whiskey Rebellion was an uprising of farmers in Pennsylvania in protest of a tax on whiskey distilling enacted by the federal government. This protest didn't come with a catchy patriotic cry of "Taxation without representation is tyranny." Mainly because the farmers did have representation. It was their own representative government, not a parliament in far-off London, that was imposing the tax. The story is usually presented as an argument about the federal government's power to tax, but that's a nuance of government that is hard to make adults understand, to say nothing of elementary school students. Kids have an easier time understanding that farmers, like most people, just didn't want to pay taxes, period.

Let's just say a word or two about the biggest story in American history: slavery. I won't go into the details, but the slavery story was easy to explain as an economic story, a story of exploitation and greed. Much easier than trying to understand why half the country would launch a devastating civil war over some arcane details of representative government called "states' rights." States' rights about what, I'd ask. Follow the money instead and even young kids can understand the slavery story.

All that is from my own ancient history. I never heard back from my sons that I was causing problems for their teachers. Maybe it would be different if I played the game with kids today. Teachers today are being put in an impossible situation.

Can we play my old game with the story of new education regulations today? Why, for example, would white people who have held the reins of power in this country for 250 years object to kids learning how that might have created some social problems that afflict America today? Is there any chance that there's a financial angle to this, too? I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to follow the money.

"The past is never dead. It's not even past."
— William Faulkner

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