There Are No Sides

I cannot be silent. The president’s response to the tragedy in Charlottesville is not acceptable. He started off okay, but then went off track:

We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides…”

“…on many sides” What is he talking about? There are no sides when it comes to torch-bearing, Hitler-esque saluting men marching through the University of Virginia campus in support of white nationalism. Is there a side I am missing?

In the late 1990s, when I served on the school board in Guilderland, we reviewed a policy entitled ‘Teaching Controversial Issues.’ One of my colleagues on the Board wanted to include language that said that both sides of an issue would be represented in these situations. On the surface this sounds like a reasonable request. But, when you look more closely, it isn’t so simple.

The first problem is in defining controversial topics. To me, evolution is not controversial (just as being against racism isn’t debatable). A biology teacher is not obligated to present ‘another side.’ There is no other scientific side and schools (certainly public ones) should be teaching science.  In fact, the teacher would be doing a disservice to give class time to intelligent design. There is a small, but vocal, minority who are still arguing the validity of evolution. I think it is wise for a teacher, who knows or suspects that there are students whose religious faith may conflict with evolution, to note that their views will be tolerated (I am using that word purposely), but the information presented in class will be based on science.

The second problem is that there can be many more than two sides to a ‘controversial’ issue. Everything doesn’t break down into pro and con. As much as we might like to set up issues debate-style, for and against, most subjects are more nuanced.

The third problem is that all ‘sides’ are not equal. Do all views need to be given equal time? When we study American history there are interpretations on the far right and far left that are distorted. The curriculum and materials used should represent the consensus of historians, relying as much as possible on facts and original source documents. Teachers should encourage students to think critically about the material, ask questions and facilitate discussion. But, again, ‘all sides’ aren’t legitimate and don’t deserve attention.

Sometimes there is a right side of history. The Confederacy lost the war, thankfully. While it is useful, actually critical, to understand the issues that led to the Civil War and what the South was fighting for, that is not the same thing as endorsing its mission. There is no defense for slavery. We can understand its economic role, we can understand its historical roots, but that can’t be confused with sanctioning it in any way, shape or form.

One of the elements that led to the white nationalist march in Charlottesville was the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu addressed the removal of Confederate statues in his city in a powerful speech that was articulate, eloquent and right on point. In sum, he said that those statues belonged in history museums not city squares. (Please watch the speech! It didn’t get nearly enough national attention. Here is the link). We can’t and shouldn’t erase history, but monuments to individuals are meant to celebrate accomplishments and contributions, to remind us of our better angels. Robert E. Lee may have been a great general militarily, but he does not merit celebration.

When my well-meaning colleague raised the question of adopting a policy on teaching controversial issues, the Board decided it was better to remain silent on the subject. We had a healthy discussion and debated the various implications, but concluded that it was best to leave the issue in the hands of educators.

Interestingly, the impetus for her recommendation was her perception that the Vietnam War had been taught in a one-sided manner when her oldest children went to Guilderland High School in the 1980s. When we were having this policy discussion, it was the late 1990s and Vietnam was no longer controversial. I long for a day when the same can be said of the Civil War.