As a salty old History Teacher, I’ve given serious thought to this issue and similar issues for decades.
The worst thing that can be done in the study of History is for its details to be used out of context to sell the fashionable ideas of the day. That is precisely what the collective letter from a small group of Graduates advocates. They specifically reference matters and issues that typically form a “Shame on the United States of America” narrative. The events that they referenced did happen, but they happened within a broader context that denies their guilt-ridden meta-message.
Is the USA guilty of having racialist crimes in its History? Yes! So is absolutely every other culture and civilization in human history. We Homo Sapiens Sapiens are tribal beings, capable of brutality in service to preferring “us” to “them”. Their litany of crime neglects to show this universal human trait, making it seem as if we in the USA and in the West are uniquely guilty. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Furthermore, what seems to be their cultural masochism neglects the most important trait of both Western Civilization and American history; we reform ourselves. No other society in our species’ recorded history has built itself up aspiring to such lofty ideals and then ripped itself apart to better grapple with achieving them.
We in America are born in the hope of building “God’s New Israel” in the wilderness, we later fight ourselves free of Empire to more fully pursue notions of freedom, we later fight our bloodiest war to set other men free, and we later still ripped ourselves apart and watched our cities burn in hopes of reforming our society as a place where we are each judged by our choices rather than our birth characteristics. We have spent over a Century protecting the whole world from would-be conquerors, and instead of making our own empire after World War II we spent our profits in a Marshall Plan which built up our allies as free partners.
No, it is nothing less than political propaganda to insist that our History be couched in such simplistic and racist terms as, “White people bad, everyone else good!” Unique among historical and current human civilizations, we in the West are intensely self-critical. We sacrifice mightily to live up to our visions of freedom, and re-open old wounds when we fail so that we may start anew and be true to our hopes.
Bowing to their demands would be to teach all students to uncritically “Blame America” and “Shame America”. While many Colleges have succumbed to an intellectual monoculture that insists that objective standards of decency naturally conform to a fervent belief in both identity politics and Marxist/revisionist History, this school must maintain its commitment to a genuinely educational mission. We introduce students to their Western cultural heritage, but not uncritically. We do this because the Western tradition is our shared heritage. It is our shared culture, and its aspirations inspire Americans whose ancestry comes from six continents and hundreds of subcultures. What unifies us is neither blood nor soil; it is a shared belief in the ideals of freedom expressed in our Constitution, in the Federalist Papers, and in the Declaration of Independence. Liberal Progressives rightly point out where we fail and must rededicate ourselves if we are to remain true to our high ideals. Conservative Libertarians tend to appreciate the unique freedoms bestowed on individuals in our society; a scope for creativity that places few barriers in the path of each of us being true to our conscience.
In our courses, we acquaint each student with the record of controversies between traditionalists and reformers that is uniquely Western and American. And, we do so in a manner that encourages a genuine inquiry, beyond the fashionable groupthink of contemporary “Woke” political correctness. We value intellectual honesty and integrity. Ours is a community where students and Teachers wrestle with the underlying meaning behind our classroom lessons. Each individual student must draw their own conclusions about significance. Our curriculum introduces students to the ongoing conversation about essential truth and meaning that is at the heart of Western Civilization, and of all human culture. Students are encouraged to follow lines of reasoning to their natural conclusions, assessing both the contextual and objective validity and limitations of these ideas. This is intellectual honesty; fairly considering matters on their merits independent of their popularity. No idea is or should be beyond the pale of thoughtful consideration, and no assertion is or should be beyond constructive criticism.
This school values free-ranging discourse between thoughtful and well-motivated participants who sometimes honestly come to irreconcilable conclusions. Civil and productive conversation involving people who advocate mutually exclusive notions, being requisite to both successful study in Higher Education and active citizenship in our Republic, is at the core of our school’s mission.Intellectual integrity involves our refusal to allow voices to be silenced when participating in the free exchange of ideas. Not all ideas have equal merit, but without the ability to fairly assess the implications of ideas by exploring them freely, any genuine and creative dynamism to the discussion will be lost. As we are dedicated to teaching students how to think and not what they must conclude, we insist that no thoughtful expression be banned.
Now more than ever, it is crucial for our school to be a place where students are encouraged to fully participate in a vigorous, unscripted, uncensored, and freewheeling exploration of facts, ideas, context, and essential meaning. Within traditionally recognizable standards for formal interactions on a Middle and High School Campus, we rededicate ourselves to foster a campus culture of genuine intellectual inquiry which inspires students to aspire to nothing less than the virtues of truth and excellence in their own dealings.
As Martin Luther said famously at Wurms, “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason (I do not accept the authority of popes and councils because they have contradicted each other), my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.” As Luther staked his all on the convictions of conscience, we must stand against the Mob-of-the-moment’s insistence that we bow to their new Orthodoxy. So long as we do this, ours will be a school that is both worth attending and worth working for.
The following scene seems relevant to questions of intellectual integrity as it relates to groupthink. The whole movie, “Hannah Arendt” is also well worth seeing, as is her book, “Eichmann in Jerusalem” (about the trial of Adolf Eichmann). To me, the heart of her speech is this line, paraphrased here. “The product of the winds of thought is not knowledge. It is the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly!”
If I have gone on here at length, and have mixed my own personal reaction with my stance as a professional, that is because I have seen the standards of my particular profession (History Teacher) degrade decade by decade at Universities that have betrayed their mission to build free-thinking minds capable of independent reasoning and judgment. I have seen this propagandistic poison infect so much of K-12 Education. This matters, because without the proper transmission of cultural values from generation to generation, a form of cultural amnesia sets in. As a relative of several loved ones who suffer(ed) from dementia and Alzheimer’s, and as a Historian who has seen what happens to cultures that succumb to this schism between past and present identity, I oppose such matters with everything in me.
I love this school, and I love my students, and I believe that it is nothing less than my Vocation to do my level best to pass on our cultural heritage, intact, to the next generation. Intact means warts and all. If you’ve read this far and have viewed the clip, then I think that you’ll understand how I approach these issues in my courses and in my wider professional life. Fallible as I certainly am, as with so very many of you, I can give this task nothing less than my very best, and I expect that many of you feel the same way. I will give unreservedly to this school and these kids so long as it remains what it now is, a beacon of reason and integrity in a devolving world.