At Edutopia, blogger Elena Aguilar, a “school improvement coach” in Oakland, California, is peeved that her six-year old son thinks George Washington was “a good president,” an idea he apparently picked up in kindergarten. “Why do you say that?” Aguilar asks him.
“Because he freed us from England,” he said.
“Some people think he was good, others disagree,” I said.
“My teacher thinks he was good,” my kindergartner responded.
I then explained to my son that I thought he’d done some things that weren’t fair. “George Washington owned slaves and one of the reasons he wanted to be free from England was because he wanted to be even richer than he already was,” I told him.
Aguilar, who explains that “we’re pretty anti-slavery in our house,” goes on to describe how the exchange left her “boiling” at her son’s teacher for two reasons. “First, this is not the way to teach history. This approach — an uncritical, history-as-true-fact, spoon-fed-hero-worshipping of rich white men and the unquestioned glorification of those who have always had power — is not acceptable for my kid or any kid,” she writes.
“Secondly, I’m shocked by any teacher’s lack of cultural competence. I can’t imagine what one might think as they look at students’ faces, such as those of my son’s classmates (some of whom are African American or recent immigrants), and declare, “George Washington freed us from England.” He sure didn’t free my people who immigrated in the twentieth century, and he sure didn’t free my husband’s ancestors who were brought to this country in shackles.”
That’s all fine and well (we’re pretty anti-slavery in my house, too) but Washington was motivated by a desire “to be even richer than he already was?” Really? I’m no David McCullough, but didn’t Washington, a wealthy planter whose wealth was largely created by planting tobacco for export, have much more to lose than gain–including his life–by rebelling? I was surprised to read that his leading the American Revolution was essentially a business decision. Too, there’s the issue of viewing historical figures through a contemporary lens. And isn’t all of this a bit much to put on the plate of six-year-olds? Presumably over the course of a K-12 education there should be several occasions to expand one’s knowledge, see with more nuance, and come to see history in all its contradictions and complexities.
I posted questions and comments for Aguilar; at least three others posted similarly asking for a reference to support her interpretation of Washington’s role. But when I returned to the thread yesterday to rejoin the conversation, a curious thing happened. All of the comments critical of Aguilar’s post that I had read in my email the day before had mysteriously disappeared from the thread.
“I have no problem with kindergartners being taught about George Washington,” Aguilar generously allows, ”as long as they are being asked to think critically and consider multiple perspectives, and as long as they are also learning about other people.” Agreed. The original post was supposed to be on the need to apply critical thinking to history. But critical thinking about that post seems to have been censored.
Maybe there’s a benign explanation. But it sure looks like someone’s preaching it, but not teaching it.