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We need a more honest retelling of our history


I graduated from both high school and college thinking that the Underground Railroad was an actual train, with Harriet Tubman at the controls.

When I read about the controversy regarding plans by the Las Cruces school district to develop a more equitable curriculum, I thought back to my school days and how shallow and misleading my education was as to the contributions made by those who did not sail over willingly from Europe, and their descendants.

The history of our nation taught when I was in school was one that always ended in redemption. I learned that slaves were brought to America long before the revolution against the British, and that they were treated with horrible cruelty and brutality. But redemption came in the form of Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation.

The assassination of Lincoln then ruined plans for an orderly reconstruction of the Southern states after the Civil War, leading to several more decades of cruelty and brutality. But redemption came in the form of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement.

I remember learning about a handful of historical black figures -- Fredrick Douglass, George Washington Carver and, of course, Tubman. It’s a pretty short list. And in each case, what I learned was the story -- the mythology.

I don’t remember learning anything at all about the historical contributions made by Hispanics. There was no mention that peaceful, prosperous societies existed on the American continent long before the arrival of Columbus. 

Historian James W. Loewen did a terrific job of exploding the myths and explaining the ethnocentric slant of American history textbooks back in 1995 with his book “Lies my Teacher Told Me.” It still holds up nearly three decades later.

Which is unfortunate. Change has come far too slowly, and never without a fight from those still clinging to a more sanitized version of our nation’s origin story.

But change is coming. The Las Cruces school district is considering something called Policy JBC Equity and Excellence for All Students. I don’t know enough about the specifics of that policy, and what actual changes it would bring to the classroom, to either endorse or condemn it. But I do support the goal, which, according to Associate Superintendent Roberto Lozano, is to develop a curriculum that is more relevant to students of all backgrounds.

The American history that I and others from my generation were taught in school was literally too good to be true. That’s just human nature. People of all nations want to glorify their ancestors and gloss over the darker periods.

But a dishonest recounting of history leaves us unable to learn from past mistakes and more apt to repeat them. And, it makes it more difficult to appreciate how past acts of discrimination still impact our society today.

American history is filled with the heroic exploits of courageous warriors and the life-changing and life-saving inventions of brilliant scientists and inventors. Our ancestors built the strongest, most prosperous nation on the planet. There is much to be celebrated.

A more honest telling of our history does not mean wallowing in the worst moments and turning all of our founders into demons. But it does mean recognizing the contributions made by all Americans, and acknowledging that not all have shared equally in our prosperity.

I believe that is what school officials are trying to accomplish, and I hope this new policy is the right way to get there..

Walter Rubel can be reached at waltrubel@gmail.com

Walt Rubel