We Have Nothing to Fear From the Past

by W. Todd Groce, Ph.D.

A colleague recently told me about a student in Poland who wrote to him before the fall of the Iron Curtain begging for American history textbooks. This Polish student longed to read the whole story, warts and all, of how freedom had evolved in the United States.

The American approach to teaching history was very different from how he was being taught in his school, where Communist officials censored the past out of fear that open discussion might undermine their legitimacy. Only a government-approved history, one that was in no way critical of the Party or the country, was permitted. This sanitized version was called “patriotism.”

Conversely, here in the U.S. students are challenged to think critically about the past. Rather than merely memorizing government-approved facts and dates, they examine how events and people have shaped the world we live in today. Learning how and why we got here—and using that knowledge to meet the challenges of the future—requires us to look at our failures as well as our successes.

But will teaching students about “failure” undermine their patriotism? If we focus only on success do we run the risk that they will lose respect for a country that cannot look honestly at its past?

The legislatures of several states have recently criticized the new Advanced Placement American History course for public high school students, charging that the new material emphasizes “what is bad about America” and downplays “American exceptionalism.” They fear that young folks who discover our nation’s imperfections could turn into less than patriotic adults. As one critic observed, “most people” who complete the course will be “ready to sign up for ISIS.”

But even if it’s done with the best intentions, censorship of history is dangerous. Students are smart and any attempt to tell less than the whole story could backfire.

Already, high school students in Colorado have protested against proposed curriculum revisions that stress only “positive” aspects of American history. Carrying signs inscribed “Teach us the truth,” they demanded to learn the whole story—not so they could tear down their country, but so that they could improve it by learning from the past.

One of America’s greatest virtues is that our commitment to liberty has allowed us to grow as a nation. The Founders knew that forming “a more perfect Union” and defining what it means to be free would be an evolutionary process. It’s a measure of our strength as a people, of our patriotism, that we have the capacity for self-reflection, self-criticism, and self-improvement.

What makes America exceptional is not that we are perfect, but that when we misstep, we own up to it and keep striving toward excellence. Unlike totalitarian regimes that use sanitized history to reinforce their legitimacy, America draws its strength from open and honest debate about its past, present, and future.

There are reasonable objections to the new curriculum, and I share some of them. But fixing the problems can be accomplished without covering up the unpleasant aspects of our past. The good, the bad, and the ugly must all be learned without fear that it will diminish patriotism. Just the opposite is true. When a nation is honest with itself and unafraid of its past, it will never lose the admiration and loyalty of its citizens.


W. Todd Groce, Ph.D.
W. Todd Groce, Ph.D., is President and CEO of the Georgia Historical Society.