COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter show that we need a new national curriculum for our public schools – a curriculum that is truly public, and thus mandatory for home schoolers and private schools, too.
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As schools across the U.S. prepared to open classrooms in one form or another, public debate centers on how to teach during the pandemic. We need also discuss what to teach. COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter show that we need a new national curriculum for our public schools – a curriculum that is truly public, and thus mandatory for home schoolers and private schools, too.
For decades, politicians and pundits trumpeted a quasi-biblical fantasy of American exceptionalism that goes something like this: Ours is a nation uniquely blessed by Providence, a shining city upon the hill, the best, the brightest, the bountiful. We drive the biggest cars, dine on the tastiest steaks, call it The World Series despite excluding almost everybody else. We are nothing if not a country of hyperbole.
Yet there is some truth to our chauvinism. The COVID-19 pandemic shows with horrifying clarify that the U.S. is certainly in the running for a national Nobel Prize in selfish zealotry and scientifically illiteracy. Black Lives Matter demonstrates with equal starkness that we are also prize-worthy for our stubborn unwillingness to address seriously the horrors of our own national past. Both are forms of exceptionalism that should make us collectively hang our heads in shame. But there is a solution, which I offer from my experiences as a former professor and Massachusetts school committee member: reshape K-12 public education. And make it public.
The 18th century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau had the right spirit in advocating for a social contract and The Enlightenment. Both are in short supply today, which is why the pandemic is resurging. A large segment of the country proudly celebrates modern individualism by gleefully ignoring science and committing to medieval ignorance. The multitudes who refuse to wear masks in public and shun social distancing are no better than anti-vaxxers, QAnon fanatics, and other conspiracy peddlers. They are, like poorly-behaved toddlers, willfully selfish.
They are also, to put it kindly, unenlightened. Consider Brian Kemp, governor of Georgia, who graduated from the state’s flagship university with a Bachelor of Science degree – yes, science! – yet tried to sue the mayor of Atlanta for mandating – on the basis of that same science – the use of masks. The governor’s foolishness should cause the University of Georgia to switch its mascot from the bulldog to the lemming or turkey.
COVID is not our only virus. Black Lives Matter reminds us that the nation is also infected by a far older social disease. Like misogyny and antisemitism, racism is a centuries-old hatred based on ignorance and fear. Despite what the President and his minions say, Black Lives Matter celebrates the ideals of liberty by calling on the nation to reflect seriously on our legal and moral commitments to equality. It also calls for an honest accounting of our past. We need a nationwide truth and reconciliation project, akin to the efforts of post-War Germany to atone for the Holocaust. Rather than trying to sweep the Jewish genocide under the rug of nationalism, Germany promotes ongoing public awareness. We should follow suit regarding slavery, Jim Crow, and lingering institutional racism. In fact, the same individualism that allows too many Americans to shun masks also permits the casual dismissal of racism. “I didn’t enslave anybody,” many say, “so I don’t care.”
COVID and racism both evidence that the US educational system is a resounding failure. Our universities charge far more than institutions in any other country and yet far too many of the American public are merrily content to heed fringe internet memes and dangerous ideologies. What is so frightening is that most of these unmasked tiki-torch bearers graduated from schools of one sort or another; many “earned” university diplomas. Indeed, the silence of higher education about the content taught in our high schools suggest far greater interest in tuition dollars than knowledge.
We can, however, inoculate young people against the intertwined evils of scientific, historical, and moral illiteracy. We need a nationwide K-12 curriculum based on verifiable science and historical authenticity. Too many schools are overseen by state commissioners, board members, and secretaries of education who lack even the minimal qualifications. Many embrace farcical notions such as creationism. They see the Civil War as a struggle for states’ rights rather than…