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Ken Plum: Schools as a political football

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When I graduated in January 1965 from the newly named Old Dominion College (now University) that had previously been the Norfolk Extension of William and Mary, I found the job market bleak for persons with history and political science majors. I could find a job, but I wanted one that would allow me to use the skills and knowledge I had gained in my dual majors. Teaching was a possibility, but I lacked the necessary credentials. My graduation with a master’s degree in teaching the social studies from the University of Virginia provided me the credentials for teaching, and the internship associated with that program landed me a job teaching history and government in Fairfax County Public Schools.

In the master’s program I learned about the discovery learning approach to teaching that was being demonstrated at Amherst College. The goal of the program was to equip learners with the tools of research and weighing evidence that would make them lifelong learners who would enjoy learning and be able to make informed decisions in the future.

As excited as I was about the opportunity to manage the learning of students and enjoy the excitement they would experience as they discovered the processes of acquiring knowledge and skills, I had to recognize the fact that the State Department of Education’s expectation for me was quite different. It was my first teaching job, and I was given a state written and approved textbook on the history and government of Virginia that I was supposed to use. The textbook, Cavalier Commonwealth, was written by a committee of academics whose content had to be approved by nine legislators on the Virginia History and Government Textbook Commission. The Textbook Commission came about in 1950 because of changes in public opinion on issues such as states’ rights, desegregation of schools and what the establishment feared as federal intrusion in state affairs. The legislators read and edited the text of the book to be used in the schools to teach history and government to ensure that no ideas beyond those held by the establishment were taught to children.

I found the information in the book to be so offensive that I told the administrator to whom I reported that I could not honestly use it. There was agreement that I would not teach the “facts” in the book as they were written but rather use them as a point of departure to research and discover a more balanced view of the state’s history and government. I got permission to do so as more than half the students had failed the “trivial pursuit” approach of memorizing isolated bits of information to be given back on a test. I believe that most left my class enjoying a new subject and being equipped with tools they could use in the future.

I am greatly concerned that once again school programs are being politicized. The current controversy over “Critical Race Theory” is being used to stoke fear among parents who want to limit learning to their own ultra-conservative view of the world. That would not be good for our students or our society. We need to push back against this effort to make our school programs political footballs and ensure that our students can become the lifelong learners, scholars, and good citizens they can be.

Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.

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