Teaching Tolerance Doesn't Mean Avoiding the 'Ugly' Side of U.S. History | Opinion

I think the way we teach civics should be unequivocal on the issue of tolerance. We should teach our students how to disagree respectfully and how to debate intelligently using evidence rather than ostracism, degradation or threats of violence. Democracy and the social contract that holds us together as a society depend on our ability to do this.

However, we should also be unequivocal on ethical and moral issues such as slavery and genocide. I think it's fine to explain that the values of the 18th and 19 centuries made it possible to rationalize owning and murdering other human beings, but it is important for students to understand that this was wrong and morally indefensible.

I don't think teaching tolerance means we should run away from controversies or avoid what we might refer to as the "ugly side" of U.S. history. In fact, I think addressing such topics makes history more compelling to students. It is impossible to deny that the United States was founded on slavery and the genocide of indigenous people. The enslavement of African people and the conquest of indigenous lands generated tremendous wealth for landowners, bankers and others. Most of the "Founding Fathers" owned human beings that they used as slaves to enrich themselves, and we must recognize that slavery was made possible by extreme violence. Similarly, learning about the systematic violence carried out against Native Americans over centuries forces students to see that indigenous people were not innocent "savages" who graciously helped the Pilgrims (e.g., the myth of Thanksgiving), but rather were (and are) a diverse people whose culture and way of life have been severely damaged as a result of European colonization and territorial expansion. Confronting our history and learning from it is essential for moving forward and creating a more just society. This is why the "1619 Project" is so important, even if it is disturbing to some white Americans.

This does not mean that the democratic ideals reflected in the Constitution are not important. In fact, they have served as a source of inspiration to freedom-loving people throughout the world—including the people of Haiti, who created the second independent republic in the Western Hemisphere after defeating the French and liberating themselves from slavery in 1803. One of the reasons why I enjoyed Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton so much, despite criticism that he glossed over slavery, is that aside from the great music and lyrics, he captures the contradictions of American history in a powerful way. Washington, Madison and Jefferson were slave owners and advocates for democracy and freedom. I think it is important for students to understand how both could be true.

When students are forced to grapple with the meaning of freedom and the complexity of history, I believe they are better prepared to participate in democracy. In my teaching days, I once staged a debate with my students over the meaning of emancipation for Black people in the U.S. Learning about what life was like after the Civil War; finding out that Lincoln and others seriously considered repatriating Black people to Africa when slavery ended; and understanding the rise of the KKK, the prevalence of lynching and the pervasiveness of white violence toward newly freed Black people is important for all kinds of kids, but especially for those who are white. This type of understanding of civics better prepares students to understand the racial justice movement that has swept the country as a result of the police killings of Black people.

Sixth grade classroom in 2012
Sixth grade classroom in 2012 Mark Makela/Corbis via Getty Images

We may disagree about how to teach students about current or historical examples of racism, but I think we can both agree that the current rise in racially motivated hate crimes, anti-Semitism and white supremacy poses a threat to social order and to our democracy. Hate crimes are on the rise throughout the country, and neo-Nazi groups that once operated in the shadows now feel emboldened to hold marches and spread their hateful ideas online and in print. The killings at the Tree of Life synagogue, the racially motivated shooting at the Walmart in El Paso, the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville that resulted in the killing of a counter-protester and the January 6 attempted insurrection at the Capitol are all ominous signs.

Reasonable people can disagree about immigration, affirmative action or climate change, but when I hear conservatives complain about "cancel culture" and then hear that they want to cancel critical race theory, the hypocrisy is hard to take. We must not treat those we disagree with as enemies, but spirited debate is healthy and necessary.

I agree with the sentiments of the late John Lewis, who in an op-ed published after his death, wrote: "Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself."

I believe that seeing democracy in this way is important because it lets our students know that they have a responsibility as citizens to be involved in the ongoing effort to create the "Beloved Community" and a more just society. As we both know, social studies textbooks in the past were written in a way that promoted a superficial form of patriotism and whitewashed our history. I didn't realize until I was in middle school that almost all of the Founding fathers were slave owners. I'm not sure when children should learn this bit of history, but when I found out about it, I felt cheated. It felt as though I had been lulled into admiring leaders like Washington, Jefferson, Patrick Henry and others without being given a full picture of who they were.

In short, schools that don't teach all aspects of history unjustly deprive their students of the important opportunity to grapple with the full story of their country.

To quote one of our most famous slaveholders, Thomas Jefferson: "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be."

Pedro A. Noguera is dean of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. He and Frederick Hess are authors of the new book, "A Search for Common Ground: Conversations About the Toughest Questions in K-12 Education."

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.