DeSantis And The Teaching Of History

DeSantis And The Teaching Of History January 24, 2023

Gage Skidmore: Ron DeSantis/ Wikimedia Commons

We are to remember the past, including, and especially the wrongs which were done, but also the way those wrongs were overcome. Christians should look to and accept history as it is presented in secular sources, even as they can interpret it in a way to believe that God had a role in the shaping of history. That is, though God has made room for human freedom, and so much of history is the representation of what humanity has done with that freedom, Christians also believe God has a way of working with and through that freedom to inspire and direct elements of history. God allows humanity to go astray, to do all kinds of evils, to create all kinds of systematic injustices, but God also inspires others to work against those evils, to demolish such unjust structures, and with grace, to heal the damage which humanity has done to the world.

Indeed, Scripture encourages us to remember history in this way. We are told we should not ignore the past and the evils found it in, and so we should not hide the evils which we have done from our children, even as we should proclaim the way such evils were overcome (looking, of course, to the way God’s grace worked with humanity to promote such corrections):

I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old,  things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us.  We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the LORD, and his might, and the wonders which he has wrought. (Ps. 78:2-4 RSV).

It is especially important to remember our transgressions, not to dispute them or act as if they were not there. “Remember this and consider, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me” (Isa. 46:8-9 RSV).

Why, then, do many so-called Christians, especially in the United States, want to prevent children from learning about the evils of the past? African Americans suffered greatly throughout history. The story of their suffering is one of the most important stories of American history, for without understanding their story, so many major events of American history (like the Civil War) cannot be properly discussed. It was slavery which allowed many rich plantation owners become richer, all on the backs of their slaves; even after slavery was abolished, society tried to keep African Americans down, holding them to a similar role and place in society, that is, serving as the labor which was exploited by the rich and powerful. We must not forget this. We must not ignore the great evils African Americans suffered. We must acknowledge the collective guilt of the American people, realizing that the exploitation and abuse of African Americans (and many others) were the result of systematic structures of sin. Similarly, Christians should see that the Civil Rights Movement was a movement inspired by Christian sensibilities, that is, Christian expectations for justice for all. It was led by Christians, such as Martin Luther King Jr,, who used the grace they were given to make the movement a success. Christians should look at how God was at work through the Civil Rights Movement tearing down systematic injustices, so that the movement itself could be remembered as one of the many examples of God being at work in human history.

The work of the Civil Rights Movement is incomplete. The system was not fully transformed. Not only did many systematic injustices remain, but many are coming back. This means that the work of the Civil Rights Movement is not yet over. As long as systematic injustices remain, as long as those deprived of justice do not have justice restored to them, the fight must go on. Certainly, those who fought against Civil Rights continue their fight, and are making headway. How else can we explain what is happening around the United States as African American history is being whitewashed and censored, indeed, being made illegal to properly teach it to students?

Various laws signed by Governor DeSantis in Florida show us the battle lines. He is forcing his own ideology upon Florida’s students as he will not allow them to hear or listen to anyone who presents a different, fuller vision of history than what he wants told. It appears that  those fighting against Civil Rights are gaining power, and using that power to silence history.

If history can’t properly be taught, if the wrongdoings of the past cannot be mentioned, nor the ways to restore justice cannot be discussed, then those in power, those with privilege, will have undermined one of the principles sources of inspiration for the fight for justice. Thus, we can read how DeSantis, using a law he recently signed,  is interfering with the teaching of history, forbidding its proper examination and discussion, making some courses illegal to teach:

Florida’s Department of Education has rejected an Advanced Placement course covering African American studies — saying the class indoctrinates students to “a political agenda.” [1]

DeSantis is the one who has a political agenda. He is the one who doesn’t want information to be shared. He doesn’t want a critical examination of history to be permitted because it will lead people to conclusions he does not want them to make. That is, by silencing such discussions, by not allowing teachers to share with children what history demonstrates and teaches, he is hiding from children the reality of the world which history reveals. This leaves children susceptible to indoctrination. It seems as if he and others with privilege do not want anyone to question such privilege or how it was obtained. Moreover, as they keep pushing to return to things the way they were, promoting, as it were, a Golden Age which never existed, if no one really knows anything other than the Romantic presentation of the past, they are likely to accept that all the problems of the present can be fixed by returning to the way things were in that “Golden Age.” Thus, not only are classes forbidden from teaching the full story of history, DeSantis, has banned the use of many books in schools, books which challenge DeSantis’ own political ideology and the Romantic presentation of history needed to sustain it.

Scripture is clear in that we should remember the past. We are not to ignore our collective responsibility for the evils which we have done. That many, including and especially Catholics, support such censorship in the classroom indicates how far astray American Catholicism has gone from its own moral standing. This is why, as Patrick Saint-Jean, SJ has said, there is much work to be done:

The U.S. Catholic Church has work to do. Catholics cannot stand by as states create voting legislation based on lies. Catholics cannot be silent while governors sign laws that forbid students from learning the truth about our nation. Catholics need to listen critically, even to church leaders, when they endorse lies. [2]

One of the greatest ways to lie about something is to mislabel or mispresent it. But this is exactly what is done by those who stand against the principles of social justice. They label all promotion of justice, all work for the common good, as “communist” or “socialist,” and so make sure those who work for justice have to defend themselves against such false charges instead of actually doing the work needed to be done to dismantle the systematic structures of sin which remain. Thus, such misrepresentation, such lying, is done in order to hinder the promotion of social justice. This is also what is happening with Florida and many states, as they have turned CRT into a general term which can be used to squash all attempts to look at history critically. Not only have they misidentified what CRT is and stands for, they make their new, general label applicable to all critical examinations of history which they do not like.

It is clear, many White Christians, especially those in positions of power or privilege, do not want to acknowledge how they got where they are. They do not want to acknowledge the evils of the past which continue to help them to this day. This is why so many of them are on board with silencing “CRT,” or the discussion of the systematic injustices of racism. It is important for Christians to accept the past and to teaching it, as Kevin Considine wrote:

Too many white Christians do not seem comfortable recognizing and accepting the fact that this evil did not just magically disappear with the civil rights movement. And neither was it confined to just one moment in history. So, more than a decade ago, it became imperative for me to weave the sick persistence of the heresy of white supremacy into my theology classes. And having students examine this photo proved to be a useful introductory exercise. [3]

Far from banning the critical examination and issues which emerge from the study of history, we should be promoting it, learning what happened in the past, and accept it as our heritage. This means, of course, we must accept all the good and bad which was done in it, not just one or the other. Whitewashing history, ignoring the great evils done in the past, undermines our understanding of how God is at work in history, For we will not appreciate how God works in and through people to reform the world and the systems and institutions found within it if we do not first see the evil which had to be overcome. When dealing with the evils of systematic racism, it is a major part of American history, but one which sadly has been pushed aside, so that it seems it is only taught and remembered by African Americans instead of society as a whole. It is history which must be taught, not silenced. Those who want to silence it are not interested in the truth or justice, and if they are not interested in either, then it is clear, they promote falsehood and injustice, neither of which should go uncontested.

[1] Juliana Kim, “Florida Says AP Class Teaches Critical Race Theory. Here’s What’s Really In The Course”  in NPR (1-22-2023)

[2] Patrick Saint-Jean, SJ. “Critical Race Theory And Catholicism Go Hand In Hand” in USCatholic (7-20-2021)

[3] Kevin P. Considine, “Catholic Schools Should Be Teaching Critical Race Theory” in USCatholic (9-7-2022)


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