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Opinion: Support teachers as they navigate tough subjects, including racial history

It is not pleasant to teach about the slave trade, slave auctions or the Middle Passage. ... However, we develop empathy for our current neighbors when we understand that their path to the present differs from ours.

SHARE Opinion: Support teachers as they navigate tough subjects, including racial history
Betty Sawyer, left, a supporter of critical race theory, exchanges views with a group opposed to the theory, after a protest in Salt Lake City.

Betty Sawyer, left, a supporter of critical race theory, exchanges views with a group of women opposed to the theory, after a protest organized by the Utah Educational Equity Coalition outside of the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 19, 2021. 

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Gov. Spencer Cox has every right to be concerned about teachers and the future of public education at all levels. The institutions that have served the United States since colonial days have provided the best investment in future citizens that could be imagined.

Public schools, at every level, have asked citizens to support the common goal of providing educational opportunities for citizens of all ages. In the midst of this crusade, a large group of public servants has chosen to devote its talents and careers to making the system remain relevant.

During the COVID pandemic, families, teachers and students were required to adapt in unique and creative ways. They worked together to assist children achieve their dreams, as politicians, parents and critics challenged them throughout the process.

As the voices became louder and civility diminished, educators felt abandoned as mask mandates, vaccinations, and conspiracy theories clouded a rational discussion of healthcare and course content. Lately, there is a barrage of efforts aimed at what is termed Critical Race Theory or, simply, the teaching of racial issues and their causation in the schools.

For many politicians, this is the phrase that can carry them to victory in the next election. After an extensive search of public education courses and texts, it is safe to conclude that Critical Race Theory is not a major part of Utah’s curriculum. A theory does not exist as a discipline in public education.

During the half-century that my colleagues and I have taught United States History in Utah, we have always tried to base the course on truth, facts, and trust. As scholars, we continue to learn, so interpretations may change as new facts are confirmed. The search for truth based on facts never ends. New evidence helps broaden an understanding of the past, which enables students, as citizens, to establish a broader foundation.

It is not pleasant to teach about the slave trade, slave auctions or the Middle Passage. Nor is it enjoyable to teach about how colonial powers devised ways to remove natives from their traditional lands. However, we develop empathy for our current neighbors when we understand that their path to the present differs from ours.

The Trail of Tears, Haun’s Mill, Mountain Meadows, Bear River and Fort Pillow are all racially or religiously based horrific events or massacres. They explain the world surrounding the Civil War and how violent insurrections may have been a result of the passions of the day. When I see video footage today decrying the 14th and 15th amendments as an overreach of federal authority, I am reminded of how the Compromise of 1877, led to both the loss of voting for minorities as well as racial segregation.

Indian reservations, Chinese exclusion, and LDS disfranchisement are all part of the historical story of the late 19th century. The relocation of Japanese Americans during World War II continues to remind us of what was done, but also how citizens can rise above the acts designed to injure them.

However, historians do not dwell on the instances of racial, ethnic or religious prejudice. The Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments provide the backdrop for a continued beautiful narrative. There are many events and people that have made the United States great. Most importantly, we as a people keep trying. The knowledge of the past, based on truth, facts, and trust, helps us create a better tomorrow.

Although some pundits decry the terms “inclusive,” “welcoming,” and “equality,” those words define the path of the United States. There are pitfalls and roadblocks along the journey, but when we recognize the contributions of all the people, we become one.

The preamble to the Constitution has eternal meaning as a goal. For the most part, it is what is taught in our schools in 2022.

Legislators nationwide would serve their constituents well by incorporating a positive, supportive posture toward education.

During COVID-19, teachers, similar to health care providers, served well under considerable duress. Our teachers had to perform in the classrooms, in front of computers and in the homes of our children. Indeed, 2022 is a great time to express gratitude through economic support for all children and their teachers instead of chasing fears that are not founded on fact, truth or trust.

F. Ross Peterson, a resident of Logan, is an author of several books on Idaho and regional Western history. He is a graduate of Utah State University and former chairman of the USU History Department. He earned a Ph.D. from Washington State University and is the former president of Deep Springs College in California.