Let’s Learn History — not Political Bias

(The following op-ed was prepared in response to Lori Hopkins-Cavanagh’s Connecticut Viewpoints piece on Columbus Day , which presents a caricature of an argument. Her essay is full of errors — from petty math and spelling to fundamental facts about American history. Evidently unfamiliar with the First Amendment’s scope, she describes Christianity as “intrinsic” to “our uniquely American liberties.” She says Columbus — who sailed for the king and queen behind the Spanish Inquisition — “is the reason why we are a nation founded by Christians and blessed with the only Constitution in the world where the individual citizen derives their liberties from God, not the government.”)

You don’t have to be a “Cultural Marxist” — an increasingly obsolete label Ms. Hopkins-Cavanagh employs as a rhetorical foil (one that evokes historian Richard Hofstadter’s observation about the “paranoid style in American politics”) — to be interested in history. Columbus died nearly three centuries before the Constitution was conceived, and he never set foot on the North American continent. Further, the founders who actually wrote and discussed the Constitution — James Madison, for example, who insisted on the First Amendment and other measures in the Bill of Rights — were largely deists, not “Christians” in the modern sense.

Historian Sam Haselby, in the Washington Post, explains: “Neither the Declaration of Independence nor the U.S. Constitution … are partial to Christianity. The Declaration acknowledges the authority of ‘the Laws of Nature’ and the deists’ beloved ‘Nature’s God.’ Of the [Declaration’s] 27 grievances against [King George III] … not one concerns religion. Likewise, the Constitution merely recognizes ‘freedom of religion’; it doesn’t … even mention [Christianity].” Haselby continues: “The history of religion and the American national founding does not offer simple support to either today’s Christian nationalists or the liberal secularists, who also tend to claim some kind of consensus existed among the Revolutionary generation.”

As in other realms, the truth is more complicated than facile interpreters of the past would have us believe.

Thomas Jefferson asserted, after passage of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, that this “universal” law should protect “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.” Later, as president in 1802, Jefferson advised the Danbury Baptists that there must be a “wall of separation between church and state.” Five years earlier, President John Adams declared, in signing a treaty with Muslim Tripoli, that “the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”

John Adams declared that “the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”

Regarding modern curricula, Ms. Hopkins-Cavanagh distorts what the Connecticut Core/Common Core Standards actually include. (According to her, “Our children are instructed to use search engines that provide them with pre-determined, politically manipulated results. They are instructed to submit letters to local newspapers against Columbus and attend board of education meetings to push for the change they have been indoctrinated to believe in.”)

The Connecticut Social Studies Frameworks address grade 6 (and grade 7) “world regional studies” on pages 75–86, where there is no mention of what she attributes to the 6th-grade curriculum. While that document’s introductory section does include (on page 4) a reference to Columbus Day as an example of an occasion for student investigation and “taking informed action,” the discussion is in neutral language — far from the dogma that she imagines. Nor is it clear, in the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, or a related appendix, on what basis she would justify her statement.

Oddly, Ms. Hopkins-Cavanagh links to a Netherlands-based, crowd-sourced website less authoritative on American history than many U.S. sites. Unwittingly, she in effect makes a case for both history instruction and library media professionals — who can help all of us to navigate the Internet and distinguish among sources of varying degrees of credibility.

“Mythology distracts us everywhere”

Opinionated, inflammatory radio or TV hosts — or even politicians — can ride the airwaves, unhindered by reality. But as President John F. Kennedy warned in a 1962 commencement speech, “the great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived, and dishonest — but the myth — persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often … We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought. Mythology distracts us everywhere.”

There is a legitimate debate to be had about such matters as the historical role of Europeans like Columbus and of the indigenous peoples they encountered in the Americas. A balanced, judicious consideration of history — and its context — is essential. Vandalizing Columbus statues is not the route to wisdom or justice. Yet neither does one have to be a “Marxist” to inquire into whether Columbus, and his fellow explorers/conquistadors, had an entirely positive impact on the Americas.

Citizens young and old should not idly endure self-righteous, ill-informed indignation that needlessly politicizes education and civic life. Critical thinking is in order. Before lecturing the public about history, a person should be more acquainted with its foundations. As John Adams (among others) observed: “Facts are stubborn things.”

A version of this piece appeared at Connecticut Viewpoints. Earlier articles addressed topics ranging from Indian Americans, immigration, refugees, nationalism, and the “Muslim ban” in historical context, to new voters, citizenship, men’s role in defending reproductive choice, men and the campus climate for women, college sports, history and public lands, Gandhi’s legacy, marching in peaceful protest, U.S. politics of the last two decades, the Loving v. Virginia legacy, and the Obama generation. Twitter: @JosiahBrownCT