Every day we learn something new. Sometimes, what we learn is easy to understand without any questions, like math or science. Other times, it’s easy to understand but leaves us asking why, like history or sociology.
But in the worst of times, like what happened at my former high school last Friday, it’s hard to understand and leaves me asking why. And how.
In a shocking short span of time, every level of media, from Foster’s to The New York Times, has reported on the controversy that has just engulfed Dover High School, where two students were captured singing a song referencing the Ku Klux Klan for a history class. They were covering America’s Reconstruction era following the Civil War. The students were asked, quite unusually, to take a topic from the time period and write a Christmas carol-esque jingle that captures the topic in a sing-song manner. In a video posted on Facebook, recorded by one of the students in the class, the two students could be heard reciting lyrics related to the clan’s aims to “kill all the blacks” and “burn a cross on their front yard” to the tune of “Jingle Bells”. The crowd’s laughter expressed more shock than approval.
In the wake of the incident, the instructor leading the class at the time – longtime history teacher John Carver – was placed on paid leave while the district investigates, and no students have been disciplined (yet). The inevitable widespread outrage at the students singing the song, the teacher and the school has seemingly confirmed DHS as an institution with more skeletons in its closet than first expected.
In learning more about this incident, however, I also learned that not everyone is telling the whole story or giving their perspective with all the facts in mind. Like the fact that the student who recorded the video, Chloe Harris, was instructed by Carver, along with the rest of the class, to NOT record the songs due to the nature of the assignment but did it anyway. Or the fact that the students themselves, as one of them told WMUR-TV, did not intend to offend anyone and that it was meant to accurately reflect the nature of the KKK and the time period they were learning about.
Yet, through all of this, the most important thing to learn is that learning is no laughing matter. History, regardless of whether or not we agree or like it, is the cold, hard truth, and a serious one at that. When it comes to covering subjects as consequential and morose as Reconstruction, where’s the logic in trying to blend the KKK with Christmas? Or trying to give a dark time in American history light and jolly undertones in general?
I realize that learning can be a subjective thing, as people learn about things in different ways, and thus stresses the importance of individualized education in some cases. In other cases, however, like when learning about Reconstruction, there is only one way to teach it: as it is. Teach us the facts, tell us the truth, and be direct; there is no point in trying to sugar-coat history, because trying to do so takes away from its many necessary and sour realities. History, like humanity, is naturally imperfect, and trying to make a carol out of the KKK is like claiming it’s a great idea to alter the Jefferson Monument or that removing every last historical Confederate-related fragment from existence will meaningfully end American racism.
In other words, history can be fun. And it can surprising, too. But we must learn to take it seriously first.