Goodness I had a hard time putting a title on this post! The topic has been sitting on my heart and crossing my lips probably more than Erik wants to admit. It has been the topic of many late night conversations after the children have gone to bed. It started to stir within me on Columbus Day this year. While I have always put some different – not totally alternative, but different – thoughts to it as well as American Thanksgiving and other holidays that seem to celebrate the pride of one group at the expense of another. With arguments about cultural appropriation blanketing Waldorf Facebook groups and other sticky subjects making social media a place of hate rather than discourse, I knew that I would need to be very ginger in my handling of this topic.
The topic is really a few topics rolled into one. The first being do we believe and honor the traditional, white male American accounts of these events? And second being, at what point do we challenge these events in our children’s education? With the second question comes more questions…. how deep do we go and how soon? At what point is it my own bias and not the truth? Do I have to completely turn my back on people that don’t agree? How do I properly convey to my child the truth behind these events and how they affected history… and how do I get my own feelings in check about them? And maybe the most important question of all…. what would the world be like without these events?
Unpack your own feelings.
I think the first thing to do is unpack your own feelings about these holidays and really all feelings about American history. America was created on the backs of natives and slaves. There really is no nice way to say that. BUT, if we only say that, then we leave out some pretty big pieces of history and neglect to see the whole picture. It is easy to do, not everyone is a history buff and not everyone takes the time to examine things critically from all sides, but as teachers, teachers of our children who will then form opinions and go on to teach others, we have an obligation to look at the bigger picture. Each event created the opportunity for the next event. Some good, some bad, some horrible and some just inevitable. There should be sadness and anger and tears over some of these events. There should also be understanding, learning and objectivity about them.
Every story is really two stories – or more like ten stories depending on the perspective given. Let’s begin with something like Columbus Day. As a white American, the holiday frustrates me. It might frustrate you for completely different reasons and for the person that lives down the street, they might think we are both cracked for being frustrated. Perspective. Who’s is right? There is probably a bit of each perspective that is right. The holiday frustrates me because as a history lover, I know he wasn’t the first person to discover America. I also know that he likely had a darker side that the mainstream history books don’t tell us about. Earlier this year I took some heat from a customer that didn’t like what I said about him in our grade seven curriculum. I said that he ushered in many things, including the first signs of religious freedom. His “discovery” of this place for Europe would later give hope to a group of people – the Puritans. They were a group of deeply religious people seeking refuge. They would later land on Plymouth Rock and nearly all die before getting help from the native people of this land. Would they have come here without Columbus and others like him paving the way? Perhaps, perhaps not. Should we excuse the actions of one person because of the progress or changes made after them? Absolutely not, however we should for sure take it into account with the big picture.
Just what is that big picture?
The big picture looks different depending on where you stand. It is different depending on what country your ancestors came from. It is different if you are first generation to America or 5th or 10th. That big picture looks different. We look at social media and like to think things are so cut and dry. They just plain aren’t. The big picture shows all the colorful pieces, it shows oppression from one group to another. It also shows oppression within the same group. It shows that as humans it matters less what color or creed we are and more about what lives in our hearts. Oppression within races and culture still occurs today and we should do more to work with our children to see those seeds and cultivate NEW plants. Plants of freedom and plants of peace.
What do we teach and when?
Understanding what is developmentally appropriate is the first step in teaching history with less bias (although realize you will ALWAYS give your own bias, regardless of how hard you try not to!) When is it ok to say “Yes Thanksgiving was about eating together but we were horrible to them after and stole their land!” well…. that’s not a conversation for a six-year-old. It isn’t even a conversation for a 1- year-old. Colonialism is a conversation for the child of middle school and up. Why? From an anthroposophical perspective, a child’s intellect is born around 14, this is when some real critical thinking, layered with a bit of philosophy can be seen. This is the time to pose questions like “Do you think that what came after Columbus was worth it?” or “If you were the king of Spain would you have sent him on this journey?” or “Do you think that he was spiritually called?” Then in high school you can pose the question “If God called upon Columbus to sail the seas and find what would later be America, did that mean God didn’t also love the natives that he later enslaved?” These questions of depth require faculties that the young child doesn’t have. So what DO we say to the six-year-old? I’ll be honest about what I have always said when my children were young…
“No, he didn’t really discover America. He thought he discovered alternate route to India. Do you know how our friend X has darker skin? Well he came here and saw people like X and thought he discovered India.” – this usually just has them laughing and then me saying something like “but he did make it possible for others to then come after and make discoveries too.” Nothing about genocide. Nothing about oppression. I honestly wouldn’t even bring dang Columbus up if it were not for the freaking radio announcers that have to talk about Columbus Day sales everywhere. I’d rather not honor the man in that way.
“Thanksgiving is a day we gather together and give thanks for what we have.” with then a reply from my daughter “On Jack and Annie (Magic Tree House) I heard the story of the first Thanksgiving……” To that I would say “yes, the native people who lived here first helped the pilgrims and then they ate together in thanks.” I don’t go into a discussion about how later more white Europeans came and stole their land and now they only have a tiny space left… I save that a bit for fourth grade and then more of that for 8th and 9th grade (depending on how far you have gotten with history.)
Isn’t that white washing or male washing?
I don’t think so. The conversations I have with my older children are much different. While I might tell my six-year-old “Boys and girls are both amazing.” I might tell my 11-year-old “There was a time when women didn’t have the rights men did.” I might give him the opportunity to explore that further as was the case when we watched the movie “Hidden Figures”. Not only were they women, they were black women, at a time when racial tensions were very much a problem in our country – differently than they are now, not entirely, but some. Without me needing to say anything to him, the story of the movie allowed my 11-year-old to understand. To question. To see. My 16-yearold daughter watched with us and because of her more developed capacities she had an even deeper response – one of anger and outrage that women and that black people could be treated so horribly. Now if my six-year-old had a longer attention span, she might have noticed the pretty pink dress one actress was wearing or the space ship. Her capacity is different.
What is right?
It is so subjective. I have five children. I have had many miscarriages. I also have been married twice. The big picture in my life is that without the horrors of my first marriage, I wouldn’t have my amazing husband and two of the five children. So which should I mourn? The babies I lost? The marriage that was broken? Or should I look at what came from those things. I know that is a frustrating concept.
I remember being a history warrior in high school. My teachers often looked for ways to challenge me because I was always playing Joan of Arc with everything. I wanted the good to always prevail and dang it, the bad needed to be punished. I had a teacher my senior year who had a huge impact on me. Mr. Montgomery. He and the other history teachers at Judge Memorial Catholic High School gave me a passion for wanting to understand others. I remember him challenging me one day and asking me if the means justified the ends or if the ends justified the means? I can’t even remember which historical conflict we were discussing, but I remember being so irritated. Why did it have to be that way? Couldn’t people just do the right thing? That is the question to ponder.
In closing, I just want to impart to you that I FULLY believe that we have a lot …. a LOT of work to do in our country when it comes to race and cultural relations. We can never return slave descendants to their homeland. We can never decolonize America. We can’t give back what has been taken. All we can do is teach. Educate. Teach our children to love one another. We have to stop yelling and start listening. We have to respect the best in others’ cultures while preserving the best parts of our own. We have to remember that this curriculum is about age appropriate material at the right time. Pose tough questions…. just do it when it is appropriate.