“George Washington was a good president” because “he freed us from England,” Elena Aguilar’s son learned in kindergarten. Aguilar, an Oakland school improvement coach and Edutopia blogger, is angry. She wants critical analysis of history. In kindergarten.
“Some people think he was good, others disagree,” I said.
I then explained to my son that I thought he’d done some things that weren’t fair. “George Washington owned slaves and one of the reasons he wanted to be free from England was because he wanted to be even richer than he already was,” I told him.
The George Washington comment had Aguilar “boiling,” she writes.
First, this is not the way to teach history. This approach — an uncritical, history-as-true-fact, spoon-fed-hero-worshipping of rich white men and the unquestioned glorification of those who have always had power — is not acceptable for my kid or any kid.
Secondly, I’m shocked by any teacher’s lack of cultural competence. I can’t imagine what one might think as they look at students’ faces, such as those of my son’s classmates (some of whom are African American or recent immigrants), and declare, “George Washington freed us from England.” He sure didn’t free my people who immigrated in the twentieth century, and he sure didn’t free my husband’s ancestors who were brought to this country in shackles.
Comments critical of Aguilar’s post were deleted without explanation, writes Robert Pondiscio. Edutopia responded by printing two comments censored for racism, neither of which I would consider racist. It did not print Pondiscio’s deleted comment or at least one other.
Pondiscio questions whether Washington was motivated by financial gain.
. . . didn’t Washington, a wealthy planter whose wealth was largely created by planting tobacco for export, have much more to lose than gain – including his life – by rebelling? I was surprised to read that his leading the American Revolution was essentially a business decision. Too, there’s the issue of viewing historical figures through a contemporary lens. And isn’t all of this a bit much to put on the plate of six-year-olds? Presumably over the course of a K-12 education there should be several occasions to expand one’s knowledge, see with more nuance, and come to see history in all its contradictions and complexities.
I added a comment:
When teachers include all children in the “us” who were “freed from England” that means that we are all equally American, with equal citizenship. It doesn’t mean we’re all descended from colonial Americans. My grandparents came here in 1890-1910 so they could be the heirs of George Washington.
I think it’s a grave mistake to urge kindergartners to see George Washington primarily as a slave owner rather than as the general who helped us win our independence and the first president (who refused the title of king). As Robert writes, financial self-interest could not have motivated Washington. The Revolution was far more likely to lead to his complete ruin and to his death. Hence the phrase “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”
As it happens my daughter was born on George Washington’s birthday. When she was in elementary school and had to dress up as their hero, she chose Washington. My efforts to make her a wig out of cotton balls have left me with Post-Art Project Stress Syndrome (PAP SS).