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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: How education can work

by John Brummett | February 4, 2021 at 3:05 a.m.

To me, education is the light bulb over the head.

It's that time when I, a third-grader maybe, sat in front of a mirror at home blowing in exhausting vain into a newly rented clarinet. I was trying and failing to make an identifiable musical sound as I fingered the simple notes shown on the sheet music that the band teacher in a public school had given me for homework.

All of a sudden, before I realized it, I'd made a melody.

I sprinted from bedroom to kitchen to ask Mom if she'd heard what I'd just done.

She hadn't, which was her loss.

I'd just been educated. I had been exposed to something entirely new.

I had seen how music got made.

Education is a revelation, new to one's awareness and for one's consideration.

Now comes state Rep. Mark Lowery of Maumelle to say that it's a form of child abuse, of bullying, for a white child to be made to feel guilty by American history.

Yes, he acknowledges, white oppression of Blacks is a part of American history.

He tells me he is not intending, by either his House Bill 1218 or House Bill 1231, to prohibit imparting that truth in public education.

Indeed, his bills would let our teachers teach those basic things. They just couldn't do so with divisive resources or divisive undertones.

Lowery objects to the notion that America was built entirely on a foundation of white oppression, as well as to intimations of that nature that he fears are being made to contemporary white children.

Those intimations, he tells me, are that white children owe whatever advantages they've inherited to a racist foundation.

The real America, he says, kicked off in 1776 by declaring that all men were created equal, not in 1619, as some now say, when the colonies started bringing in decidedly less-equal slaves to build a thriving economy.

When Lowery explained all that the other day to the legislative Black Caucus, he got a little pushback. He was told that minority children have long been made uncomfortable in our schools and other places.

He heard from state Sen. Joyce Elliott, Rep. Jamie Scott and others that talking about all of that in school might qualify as ... you know ... education, learning, even healing.

It's not as thrilling as suddenly realizing you just played "We Three Kings." Not all learning is fun. But all of it is beneficial.

I don't want today's innocent white youngsters to be made to feel guilty. But I'd like for them, somewhere along the journey of elementary, secondary and higher education, to become aware of our nation's ugly racist past, maybe even to apply critical thinking to various disputed accounts of it.

Not everything they'll hear in life will be consistent or cohesive. Life's editorial pages and op-ed pages will differ.

A culture permitting academic freedom and critical study is what's under attack from Lowery's bills, one of which, the easier, is on the agenda today at the House Education Committee.

The easier is HB1231, because it's narrow and kicks around the liberal New York Times.

It would ban any discussion of the curriculum designed by the Pulitzer Center from the newspaper's 400-year anniversary "1619 Project."

The project advanced what Lowery disparages as a "thesis" or "narrative," as if neither of those had any place in learning. It says America should consider its real birthdate to be the arrival of colonial slaves.

You could argue about that, and historians do. You could argue about some of the project's more incendiary implications, and historians do.

But, at some point, a full education would tell students all of that and invite them to open their eyes to something they hadn't previously considered.

A teacher or professor ought to be able to throw open such a discussion without threat of reprisal.

I recall, eons ago, an eighth-grade American history teacher telling us that FDR was a disgrace and Herbert Hoover tragically misunderstood.

And yet I survived, even to the point of writing here and now that FDR saved the nation and Hoover was pitiable.

See how education can work? Done right, it's not indoctrination or brainwashing, but a lifelong process of critical thinking enduring versions and biases.

I'm not mad at that eighth-grade teacher, now long departed. He was a hoot. He engaged us even as he was factually incorrect and politically inappropriate.

The only way to hope to become more politically appropriate is to negotiate all the raging inappropriateness.

Lowery's second bill, HB1218, is more vague and wide-ranging. I'm not sure he can pass it.

But I suspect he'll be able to kick The New York Times around to present our teachers with a resource they dare not utter and our students with thinking caps they dare not don.


John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at [email protected] Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.


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