Del. Ken Plum: Protecting Student Learning

This is an opinion column by Del. Ken Plum (D), who represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.

Last week I spoke to the members of the House of Delegates about my concerns of protecting student learning under the new administration in Richmond. The Governor’s first Executive Order raised more questions than answers as to the intent of the order. Entitled “Ending the Use of Inherently Divisive Concepts, Including Critical Race Theory, and Restoring Excellence in K-12 Public Education in the Commonwealth,” its opening page has little with which I would quarrel: “The foundation of our educational system should be built on teaching our students how to think for themselves.”

The following three pages of directives set the administration on an investigation to find Critical Race Theory (CRT) in the curriculum even though it is not taught in the public schools. The 14 directives have the staff looking in every document, every file folder, and seemingly behind every nook and cranny to root out CRT. This wild goose chase called for in Executive Order One to find something that does not exist is akin to the calls for a forensic audit of all election results to support the Big Lie that fraud and corruption in the last presidential election allowed the election to be stolen.

My red warning light goes off with the Executive Order for in Virginia we have gone down such a path in the past much to the embarrassment of the state in the eyes of the Nation. The Lost Cause was an effort on the part of the Southern states to justify the Civil War, glorify the participants, and claim the high ground for it having been fought. All those Civil War monuments that have been removed in the past couple of years for the false narrative they helped to promote were part of the Lost Cause movement.

Virginia’s contribution to the Lost Cause effort to give a different meaning to the causes of the Civil War was the establishment by the General Assembly of a legislative commission to oversee publication of new textbooks on Virginia history and government. The Commission realized many difficulties in trying to have professional historians and teachers cooperate in writing a selective history of the Commonwealth. One legislative member of the Commission explained that “we want to emphasize the greatness of Virginia and take out any reference to poor people.”

One historian wrote that the textbooks “portrayed Virginia’s white leaders in unfailingly flattering lights, its enslaved residents as happy and contented beneficiaries of benign masters who civilized and Christianized them, and its Indians as savage barbarians in some contexts or as primitive simpletons in others.” (Tarter, The Grandees of Government, University of Virginia Press, 2013).

My personal experience with state-written textbooks came in the mid-1960s when as an intern teacher I refused to use the textbook for it left out so much of Virginia history including the slave economy, the resulting Civil War and the Jim Crow era and its consequences. Objections by educators, ridicule in the press, and embarrassment by state officials led to these books being abandoned.

Executive Order One seems obsessed with what it calls “inherently divisive concepts.” Considering history that is truthful in our highs and lows can lead to better understandings and a stronger more inclusive state than can efforts to ignore, white-wash or mislead in our history. We do not want politicians writing our textbooks!

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