Some Republican-led American states are changing how students in their public schools are taught civics. The new standards focus on patriotism, Christianity and anti-communism. Hands-on activities, such as debating current events, are to be discouraged in order to preclude teachers imposing their own ideas. The goal is to instil pride of country.

In a The New York Times article on the new standards, my attention was caught by a course for teachers which claims the country’s founding fathers were influenced more by Christian thinking than Enlightenment ideas when they created the constitution. This is contrary to mainstream historians who believe the constitution was very much an Enlightenment project.

Personally, I consider the Enlightenment to be the most important era for students to study. It is, after all, the source of the best parts of our culture. Furthermore, it is live history. Much history we teach—events, names, dates, places—are in the past, dead and gone. But Enlightenment ideals—liberty, progress, tolerance, democracy, freedom of expression, constitutional government, separation of church and state—are very much alive today.

But history has generally not been taught to instil such ideals. Rather it has been taught for the reasons these conservative states intend, to install pride in your tribe—your race or your country.

The efforts of these Republican governors is mild compared to efforts in less democratic nations. Russia under Putin, for example, has recently assigned its high school students a history textbook that includes some surprising lessons. Joseph Stalin, one of the great butchers of the 20th century, is presented as a wise and effective leader. The collapse of the Soviet Union is blamed not on communism but on Mikhail Gorbachev, under U.S. influence of course. Putin has said that all textbooks should be based “on respect for all pages of our past.”

Chinese textbooks emphasize unification of the country by the Chinese Communist Party, but refrain from mentioning the 30 million people who died as a result of the catastrophic policies of the party’s founder, Mao Zedong. According to Ge Jianxiong of Fudan University in Shanghai, “In China, history is still used as a political tool, and at the high school level, we still must follow the doctrine.”

In countries such as ours, we strive to put teaching the truth about history ahead of patriotism, not always achieved but an emphasis I agree with. I believe children can handle the truth even when it doesn’t flatter us. It may even make them better citizens.

Nonetheless, I do hold some sympathy wth those Republican governors who are concerned teachers may be short-changing America’s founding fathers in their history lessons. In this country, too, we have seen our founding fathers literally knocked off their pedestals by self-righteous activists.

Historical truth is more than mere facts, more than just events, dates and places. Comprehending history requires the ability to describe it on its own terms, through the eyes and experience of those who made it, through a deep understanding of their culture. This involves more intensive study than simply relating a narrative. It involves setting your principles aside in order to judge from an unfamiliar perspective—different principles and different knowledge—a challenge for all of us, perhaps something children aren’t prepared for. Or perhaps something many parents wouldn’t want them prepared for.

So why teach history at all? It’s unlikely to be of any benefit to kids when they enter the workplace, and it’s unlikely to make them better citizens—that’s a job for civics.

Patriots will still insist on it, of course. It can be a powerful method of instilling tribal pride, and this goal has no need for the truth. Indeed the truth may present an obstacle to be dismissed or revised, as in the case of American kids being taught that Christianity was the important influence on the constitution, not the Enlightenment.

If parents and/or educators insist on acquainting kids with their country’s history, perhaps it is best to just stick to the bare, boring facts, and leave the understanding, the truth, for another day.

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