I hadn’t spoken to my former Raleigh News & Observer colleague in a month of Sundays, but the reason for his call was clear immediately after the “Hey”: In polite terms he was shocked, appalled and incensed by the front page article reporting that some Wake County schools are teaching students the traditional story of Thanksgiving is “a lie.”
The story said a correct “counter-narrative” being taught to children seeks to replace the image of a kumbaya feast with details of the “evil” the Pilgrims and others visited upon indigenous peoples. One 7th grader said, “Now that I’ve learned about how the Europeans committed genocide and were killing 10 to 30 million people of the Native Americans, I should think about Native Americans more on Thanksgiving.”
My colleague was surprised when I said I support the effort in theory – we should provide students with a wide range of perspectives on historical events. But I also told him that’s not what’s happening. Instead, the new, woke view of Thanksgiving simply substitutes the myth of early America’s goodness with an equally unnuanced myth of their murderous perfidy.
It reflects a much broader effort to weaponize history, transforming it into a tool of contemporary identity politics. Rather than making it more inclusive and complex, the movement’s goal is to cast the past as a Manichean battle between rapacious Europeans and entirely innocent people of color.
For instance, one of the pieces Wake County students reportedly read was “Thanksgiving: A Native American View” which portrays the native peoples the Pilgrim’s encountered as sweet souls who helped the beleaguered newcomers because “it was their way to give freely to those who had nothing.”
Perhaps. But the record also shows that war was common among indigenous tribes, some of whom found the Pilgrims, and their muskets, to be useful allies.
It is so easy to signal one’s virtue today by decrying our shameful treatment of native peoples – though I have yet to meet a social justice warrior willing to return their private land to make amends.
Dark chapters of our past should be illuminated. But they must be taught with an understanding that Americans were not uniquely or solely evil – we have plenty to be proud of.
No one is blameless; tribal wars and slavery are among the oldest human institutions. This fact does not rehabilitate cruel past practices. But it is crucial context that is missing from ongoing movements to turn history into propaganda for today’s culture wars.
Wake County’s new approach to Thanksgiving is connected, for example, to the rise of “ethnic studies” curricula at secondary schools across the country. As former N&O reporter John Murawski recently observed, it focuses on “how race, class, gender, sexuality and citizenship status are tools of oppression, power and privilege. [Students] are taught about colonialism, state violence, racism, intergenerational trauma, heteropatriarchy and the common thread that links them: ‘whiteness.’”
More troubling is that students are not just expected to learn but to become activists, as they are “graded on how well they apply these concepts in writing assignments, performances and community organizing projects.”
Another high-profile effort in this movement was the New York Times’ recent “1619 Project,” a series of articles published in August that cast aside the Declaration of Independence, immigration, westward expansion to place slavery at the very center of American history.
Leading scholars – including Gordon Wood and James McPherson – have lambasted the project as pseudohistory. Nevertheless, the Times has partnered with the Pulitzer Center to distribute the series and other teaching materials to schools across the country.
Replacing one set of myths with another is not education, it is brainwashing. Our children and our country deserve better.