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Those that fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.
That was Winston Churchill’s slight variation on the original quotation from Spanish philosopher George Santayana. I want to use Churchill’s today because I want to talk about the importance of learning our history and where I feel we are failing in that regard.
I am moved to write on this subject because I just completed the book Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen. (I’ve since learned this book has been used as a textbook in some BYU history classes.) The title caught my eye, and as I began to read, I was shocked at the stories I learned in school years ago, and the stories my sons are learning now, that are just plain false. In most instances, the problems were of omission.
We were only told one side of the story.
We need to know our history to learn from it
I think I heard somewhere along the way that Christopher Columbus might not have been the first one to discover America, contrary to the rhyme I learned in school, but I know for sure no one ever told me that he enslaved thousands of people on islands in the Caribbean and slaughtered thousands more. These facts, taken from original entries in his own journals and letters he wrote, came as a shock to my system.
I put our founding fathers up on a pedestal like many of you likely did, maybe still do.
And don’t get me wrong – they were inspired men. Their courage led to the birth of this great nation, but I didn’t know that when Patrick Henry penned “Give me liberty or give me death,” he owned slaves. I did not know that George Washington not only owned slaves, but when it became legal to free them in 1782, he chose not to, but instead, waited until his death in 1799 to set them free with his will. More than that, and I know this must be taken in the context of the time, but George Washington ordered the slaughter of at least forty Iroquois villages in New York because they would not give up their land.
We have to know these things in order to learn from them and do better.
Hold those “buts”
I can hear your protestations.
“But these men were a product of their time. You can’t take these actions out of the context of their time.”
I hear you.
What I want is to know the truth and hold the tension of all that is true.
We Americans are strong enough to know the whole truth, both what is aspirational and what is revolting. Our children are strong enough to learn the whole truth. In fact, we must know the whole truth if we are going to move forward in healing as a nation.
There is stress in knowing that the men who wrote “all men are created equal” treated men so unequally. We have to live in that tension in order to respect ALL Americans, the black, white and American Indians, who lived here before us. We have to tell the truth in order to respect all Americans of every race today.
As I write these words, let me make clear that I love my country. I am proud of my ancestors who fought in World War II, and World War I, and the Civil War. I just refuse to love this remarkable land blindly.
I am strong enough to want to know my beautiful country for what she truly is, warts and all. Only then is there hope for this generation and the generations to come to fulfill the promise our founding fathers made of forming a “more perfect union.”
Amanda Dickson is the co-host of Utah’s Morning News and the host of A Woman’s View on KSL NewsRadio. You can hear her weekday mornings on 102.7 FM and 1160 AM, as well as catch her talk show on Sundays.
I have an idea for a future in-depth report. How do I tell you about it?
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