Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran says the teaching of history in Florida public school classrooms comes down to a simple proposition: “Teach the facts.” Okay, here are some facts about American history. Which ones should be taught? And in what context?
Thomas Jefferson was a primary author of the Declaration of Independence, the foundational document of the United States. He was also a slave owner who almost certainly fathered several children with a slave named Sally Hemings. He never freed her.
On July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was adopted, setting up the newly independent colonies as an example to the world. Of course, the new nation counted approximately 700,000 enslaved people not many years later. Black slavery had begun in what is now the United States more than 150 years earlier, and a majority of the signers of the Declaration — not just Jefferson — actually owned other human beings.
Cotton was king in the mid 19th century. By 1860, cotton had become the most important American commodity and made up two-thirds of the global supply. At the time the Constitution was written in 1787, the nation produced almost no cotton but by the outbreak of the Civil War, enslaved Black people produced more than two billion pounds a year. But enslaved Black people were the most valuable property: “In 1860, slaves as an asset were worth more than all of America’s manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together. Slaves were the single largest, by far, financial asset of property in the entire American economy,” according to the Yale historian David W. Blight.
President Woodrow Wilson was a foreign policy progressive who pushed for the League of Nations, an early version of United Nations, and laid out a proposal for a fair peace to end World War I in his Fourteen Points plan. He also supported the Ku Klux Klan, called Black people “an ignorant and inferior race” and re-segregated the federal civil service workforce after winning the presidency in 1912, reversing the practices of earlier presidents.
Sept. 1, 1939. Germany invaded Poland in a blitzkrieg, starting World War II. Poland fell, then Denmark and Norway, then France — most of western Europe, save Britain. The United States, the land of democracy and exceptionalism, stayed out of the war for more than two years while Adolph Hitler controlled much of Europe and began the mass murder of Jewish people.
Dec. 7, 1941. Japan launched an aerial assault on Pearl Harbor, bringing the United States into World War II. But even then, the United States declared war only on Japan. It did not declare war on Germany until Hitler first declared war on the United States days later.
The United States played a major role in winning the war in Europe and the Pacific, and defeating fascism. However, the United States also helped firebomb Dresden in Germany and remains the only nation to have used nuclear weapons, dropping atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and then Nagasaki in August 1945. But in the war’s aftermath, the forward-thinking and globalist Marshall Plan also spent billions of U.S. tax dollars to help western European nations — including West Germany — rebuild their shattered economies.
Wernher von Braun was literally a rocket scientist. He designed the Saturn V that shot Neil Armstrong and his Apollo 11 crew to the moon, winning the “space race” against the Soviets and bringing the Earth’s inhabitants together in awe when Armstrong spoke of “a giant leap for mankind” from the lunar surface. Von Braun also had been a Nazi who worked for Hitler in pioneering the V-2 rocket. “V” stood for “Vergeltungswaffe,” which means reprisal or vengeance, and that is what the weapon wreaked on Britain toward the end of World War II.
So what’s the lesson of these scattering of facts from America’s past? History is complicated. Facts need context. And teachers need the freedom to raise the difficult questions that prod our next generation of citizens to think about what it means to be a Floridian — and an American.
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