Ken Plum: We should know better

ken plumA Kentucky school administrator recently expressed sentiments that I feel but could not write as clearly as she did. In an op-ed piece in the Lexington (Kentucky) Herald Leader she wrote, “Social justice, civil discourse, empathy, historical context and civic engagement are at the heart of preventing and resolving instances like the one we witnessed there (in Charlottesville)…If we subscribe to the belief that hate is a learned behavior, we must also take ownership for failing to provide an educational space to combat the inequality that haunts minorities every day and that paralyzes our nation in times of tragedy…History matters. Civic engagement matters. And, because of their decline, social justice, civil discourse, and empathy have become lost arts in a nation of people who can no longer talk to one another…”

As a former teacher of history and government I especially appreciated her call for “a strong social studies curriculum that provides equitable opportunities for civic engagement, civil discourse and historical context.” The ignorance of history shown by those who have been leading the opposition to removing Confederate statues is appalling. The statues were erected during times when white supremacy efforts termed the “Lost Cause” were at their strongest. Beginning in the late nineteenth century there were many movements to glorify the Old South and to justify the Civil War, or the “War of Northern Aggression” as they called it, and the erection of statues was part of it. Paralleling those activities was the passage of legislation that virtually took away the right of African Americans to vote and that separated the races in public schools and most every aspect of society. The second surge of erecting statues came when the white supremacists were opposing the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Viewed in their historic context these statutes represented a repression of social justice, failure of civil discourse and lack of empathy on the part of those supporting them.

Equally as appalling is the lack of knowledge or the unwillingness to admit the central role that immigrants have played in our history. The history of the land we now call Virginia did not begin when the English arrived in 1607; a civilization existed here for at least 15,000 years before that time. That makes all of us except for Native Americans descendant of immigrants. There is seldom a day that passes that I do not meet someone who may be brand new or first or second generation Americans who are making our communities, society and economy stronger and better. Many choose to ignore the history of immigrants especially most recently that of dependent children. They may be undocumented, but they are not “illegals”–people are not illegal. Certainly our immigration system needs work. Endless paperwork, complex bureaucracy and an entanglement of laws sometime stand in the way of people who should be given a path to citizenship that can be navigated. I thought that Richard Cohen, head of the Southern Poverty Law Center, expressed it best when he said of the decision to rescind DACA that it was “one of the most senseless, heartless, inhumane acts of any president in recent memory.”

We should know better and certainly we must insist that all act better!


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