How and When to Teach the Dark Truths of U.S. History

Readers react to a column by Ross Douthat about the value of a “patriotic education.” Also: The aftermath of cancer; social media and prejudice.,


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Credit…Jon Lowenstein/NOOR, via Redux

To the Editor:

Re “A Case for Patriotic Education,” by Ross Douthat (column, July 11):

As a longtime social studies teacher, I take issue with two of Mr. Douthat’s key claims.

He argues that students will find history boring if their early understanding of it is “unlovable.” On the contrary, students are more likely to be drawn to study a history that feels like the present, with manifest examples of humanity’s best and worst impulses. Such a history is more interesting because it’s more plausible. Idols on pedestals are cold and remote by comparison.

Mr. Douthat also says liberals are “in danger of forgetting” the “heroic American narrative” represented by the African American experience that we “understood at the time of Barack Obama’s election.” The problem isn’t faulty memory. It’s that watching tens of millions of Americans support a racist president has forced us to accept the evidence that much of the progress we dared to believe we had made was in fact illusory.

Marc Gold
Sleepy Hollow, N.Y.

To the Editor:

For the most part, I agree with Ross Douthat about the teaching of American history to elementary school students. Building a foundation of pride in our nation is a good thing. The problem, of course, is that many middle and high school students are never exposed to the more nuanced, difficult American past, and they become adults who deny the truth when they finally hear it.

Also, in the discussion of teaching the history of racism, the students always seem to be white in the popular imagination. What of the Black parents who must provide some reason for the racism that their elementary school child experiences?

This point of view is often omitted in these discussions of the teaching of American history. My children’s lives matter.

(Rev.) Marilyn B. Kendrix
North Haven, Conn.

To the Editor:

I basically agree with Ross Douthat that love of country and patriotic education are important. But his view that some may distance themselves from our history because “the nation’s past is more distant, words and names and complicated legacies, not flesh and blood” applies basically to Americans who were not disadvantaged by that history.

If you are Black or Indigenous or Jewish or L.G.B.T.Q., that history is not “distant.” American history is more or less engraved in your present condition, your family, geography, finances, education, prospects and even who you are biologically — your flesh and blood.

Of course, we can dismiss all this as critical race theory and just ignore it or ban it, or call it “woke,” or cancel teachers who talk about 1619 — except reality has a way of coming through and our children have a way of finding out “the good, the bad and the ugly.”

Tony Quintanilla

To the Editor:

I find it curious that Ross Douthat suggests teaching primary grade children about historic folks who did “remarkable, admirable, courageous things” and then later in middle and high school “filling out the picture” with the unfortunate and grim details. He seems to posit that this strategy will offer children a sense of security in their country.

However, many child development specialists would argue that a child’s sense of security is built through trust and honesty. And that children learn to trust adults (and themselves) when they are taught the duality of the human condition. Elementary-school-age children can learn that the founders of our country both had admirable goals (freedom, independence, law and order) and made grave errors (stealing land, breaking treaties with Native Americans, enslaving humans, omitting women and people of color from the Constitution, etc).

Tara Meyer Dull
Oak Park, Ill.
The writer is a child welfare social worker.

To the Editor:

I found Ross Douthat’s essay to be light on details and long on yearnings. Nothing about human history is simple and straightforward. It is all of an interwoven piece that can’t be separated out without losing the substance. For example, how do you teach about the heroism of Harriet Tubman and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. without the context of why they were heroic?

Perhaps we are at our best when we trust children to understand and learn compassion for those oppressed by the ugly parts of our history.

Janet Rudolph
Rockville Centre, N.Y.


Credit…Angie Wang

To the Editor:

I really appreciated reading Tracy Kennard’s guest essay, “More Noodles, More Life” (Sunday Review, July 11). I, too, have been dealt the cancer card, and the radiation treatments ended my ability to take any nutrition by mouth.

For more than six months, I survived through a feeding tube in my stomach. While the tube is gone, my ability to swallow anything that requires chewing is gone, along with my taste buds. So I am left with whatever my blender produces, a liquid soup of vegetables and fruits that I cannot taste. So it goes.

Life goes on without even noodles (you’re lucky, Tracy!), but when you have had the Grim Reaper come knocking, and watch him walk away from you, there can only be gratitude for the joys of a rain shower, a sunflower opening or a child’s laughter.

Michael Varga
Wilton Manors, Fla.

To the Editor:

Re “Defeating Racism One Conversation at a Time” (column, June 27):

By invoking the most improbable and dramatic examples of ideological reconciliation — between a Black musician, Daryl Davis, and Ku Klux Klan members — Nicholas Kristof illustrates a deeply human lesson: Through the process of listening and being heard, even the strongest of prejudices are vulnerable to the commonalities that unite us.

What is unfortunate, however, is Mr. Kristof’s omission of the social conditions that prevent these valuable face-to-face connections from occurring.

As a college student, I bear witness daily to a barrage of social media virtue signaling, where students conveniently repost infographics including popular opinions often antagonistic in tone and absolute in moral authority.

I’m afraid that the pandemic has worsened an already looming generational crisis. Locked behind our screens, my generation is further entrenched in today’s social media “battleground.” Individuality is hard to come by, and human connection is almost impossible.

Before we can heed Mr. Kristof’s call for face-to-face connection, young people need to ask themselves: Whom am I trying to convince?

Brian Silverstein
Highland Park, Ill.

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