We often talk about how important it is to learn from our nation’s history. We even throw around overused phrases like “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” Unfortunately, we often do so believing we can just teach a history of rainbows, unicorns, and lollipops. We want to teach the inspirational. We want to teach the celebration. We want to teach the hope.
In doing so, we are almost afraid to teach the full, complete, unedited history. In recent years, we’ve heard from classroom teachers who have chosen not to teach important lessons because they are too complicated or too fraught with criticism.
The funny thing about history, though, is that we don’t have to wait for it to be formally taught to us. We can proactively learn that which we find interesting, inspiring, or necessary. Fear that the basal textbook is just providing the perspective of dead White male landowners? Go learn the history of the role that women and the BIPOC community played in the founding of our nation, including during the Revolutionary War. Fear that DEI or CRT is preventing lessons on American exceptionalism? Seek out the biographies or tales of those you believe have truly made America great. We don’t have to wait for history to be given to us. We can take as many history lessons as we can consume, as often as we want, whenever we want. We can do so in written word or spoken lecture. We can do so in art or in video. We can do so in original source materials or social media posts.
History knowledge can be gathered regardless of one’s age, academic level, zip code, family background, or personal interest. You just have to know where to look for it. And you have to know what to do with it once you’ve consumed it.
This week, the Smithsonian will be hosting the National Education Summit. Full disclosure, my Driving Force Institute was fortunate to partner with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History as part of our Untold History initiative. As part of this year’s convening, the Smithsonian will be placing a necessary spotlight on its Our Shared Future: Reckoning with our Racial Past initiative.
Yes, our nation’s racial history is a complicated one, one that many choose to avoid as much as possible. But if anyone can tell the story, it is the Smithsonian. As Lonnie G. Bunch III, Secretary of the Smithsonian noted, “For 175 Years, The Smithsonian has been the glue that inspired America. Today, we have a responsibility to lead thoughtfully on the issues that will define the coming decades. To teach that where we have been, shows us where we can go. To help the nation live up to its founding ideals.”
The Smithsonian is clearly just the sort of reliable source, regardless of what lens one views the nation, needed for such a complex exploration.
Our Shared Future: Reckoning with Our Racial Past explores how race has informed our lives, families, our communities, and our nation, regardless of our individual racial or ethnic identity. It explores the complicated history and legacy of race and racism in the United States, realizing that true equity cannot be achieved until racism, both now and in the past, is confronted, examined, understood, and learned from.
Advocating for American history is harder today than it has ever been. As part of my work telling the Untold Stories of American history, we are often looking at how best to provide small, bite-sized provocative nuggets of American history that are often overlooked in a traditional high school classroom. Juneteenth. Harlem Cultural Festival. The 442nd Regiment. The Oneida Tribe. Black soldiers and their fight for citizenship. Dred Scott. The Tulsa Race Massacre. The Chinese Massacre. The students of school segregation. Barbara Johns. These are just some of the 500 films the Driving Force Institute has produced in partnership with Makematic that help today’s learners make a little better sense of our nation’s racial past.
Teaching our complete, complex American history is difficult, but necessary, work. Confronting racism is difficult, but necessary, work. Learning and appreciating the role race has played, and will continue to play, in our nation is difficult, but necessary work. We should not, we must not, let the difficult prevent us from doing what is necessary. The Smithsonian’s Reckoning with Our Racial Past initiative — along with this week’s Summit session, Toward a More Equitable Future, are important tools for doing what we must do, teaching what we must teach, and learning what we must learn.
Ultimately, we cannot fear our history. We shouldn’t even fear repeating our history. The greatest fear we face is not knowing our history in the first place. That’s why it is so important we take advantage of all trust opportunities to learn about how to reckon with our racial past.