Protest in America is historic….and patriotic

Not that high school students need additional reasons to be frustrated with the adults who constrain their lives, but:

The elected Jefferson County School Board is considering a proposal to revamp its American history curriculum that (according to the AP)

calls for instructional materials that present positive aspects of the nation and its heritage…[and] establish a committee to regularly review texts and course plans, starting with Advanced Placement history, to make sure materials “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-market system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights” and don’t “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”

As if to confirm the worst fears of the three conservatives on the Board, students didn’t wait for the Board to act, organizing a walk-out in protest.

As a teacher, I’m always heartened when students want to know more than what they may be getting in school, particularly about American history.  As someone who has built an academic career on the politics of protest, I also find both vindication and yet another case!

So in the suburbs of Denver, hundreds of students at six high schools walked out of class, ambled into the streets, and marched into a history that at least some of their elders want to edit severely.  The students were sufficiently savvy to know that they were far more likely to find an audience for their views by going broadly and dramatically public, organizing a campaign on Facebook and by word of mouth.

The walk-out was dramatic and telegenic, and made national news.  Indeed, students in Colorado were particularly cheered to learn that the New York Times picked up the story.

Jack Healey, writing there, even got my favorite quote:

“It’s gotten bad,” said Griffin Guttormsson, a junior at Arvada High School who wants to become a teacher and spent the school day soliciting honks from passing cars. “The school board is insane. You can’t erase our history. It’s not patriotic. It’s stupid.”

Censoring protest and contention from American history is particularly difficult.  After all, the country’s birth came from a civic rebellion, featuring plenty of what we’d now call civil disobedience.  Would you drop the Boston Tea Party?  Shays’s Rebellion?  John Brown, draft riots, and the Civil War altogether? Discuss Congressman John Lewis without mentioning the beatings and arrests he endured as a young man?  What about the Tea Party’s anti-tax protesters?  Griffin Guttormsson is right; it is stupid.  In fact, the Board tabled the resolution and then softened it, but the word got out.  Taking protest out of the schools is likely to be every bit as difficult as banning prayer.

But it’s not just about curriculum; it’s never all about curriculum.  As in much of the rest of the US, the Board is also battling the teachers and their union about creating charters and adopting a merit pay system.  The Board’s move on curriculum at the same time has created an alliance; many students hold signs emphasizing their support and affection for their teachers.

By awkwardly overreaching, conservatives on the Board have succeeded in drawing attention to what is most assuredly a national movement, funded and promoted by groups like Americans for Prosperity, and already winning scattered victories  across the United States (see Texas!).

I’d bet that the Jefferson County students gained at least as much from today’s American history lesson as from the one the day before.  They may even win a victory on the battle over the history curriculum.  But the larger conflict is far from resolution, and the students have very successfully put out a call for help in that struggle.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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One Response to Protest in America is historic….and patriotic

  1. Pingback: Battles over history | Politics Outdoors

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