Saturday, January 15, 2011

Tennessee Tea Party Demands the Teaching of Children's History

No, not really. But they have released a statement regarding their priorities for history education:
No portrayal of minority experience in the history which actually occurred shall obscure the experience or contributions of the Founding Fathers, or the majority of citizens, including those who reached positions of leadership.
According to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the TN Tea Party believes that
Neglect and outright ill will have distorted the teaching of the history and character of the United States. We seek to compel the teaching of students in Tennessee the truth regarding the history of our nation and the nature of its government. 
So much to parse.

I'll leave the rest to others, but I was most struck by "the majority of citizens." We could quibble about who is and is not a "citizen," but I would say that this standard does not mean what they think it does.

Until the 20th century, the majority of American citizens were children under 18. I think that teaching children's history is a great way to get kids engaged, especially in the elementary grades. When I taught second grade, I organized my history units around books that focused on children's experiences (Tapenum's Day, The Boston Coffee Party, George the Drummer Boy, Mary Anning: Fossil Hunter, The Drinking Gourd, etc.). Somehow, I don't think that's what they meant by "majority."

Forget children. Perhaps they meant to acknowledge that women are typically a narrow majority of any population, due to men's greater propensity for early death. There was probably a male majority among white Tennesseans in the early days of settlement, but clear female majorities emerged at critical times. During the Civil War, thousands of men from Tennessee died while fighting for both armies, which probably shifted the gender balance substantially female-ward. Sign me up for the high school curriculum that teaches the Civil War primarily as women's history.

Unlike South Carolina, Tennessee has never had a black majority. Yet, that does not necessarily mean that it has always had a white majority. Perhaps a Tennessee historian could help me guess at the year in which white Tennesseans outnumbered the Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Shawnee residents of that territory. It can't have been until 1800 at the very earliest, considering that the white population was about 9,500 in 1796, when Tennessee was admitted as a state. I suppose that you could quibble that Native Americans are not "citizens," but neither was anyone else before the 1780s. Is the Tea Party advocating a Indian-centric history of colonial America? I recommend Facing East from Indian Country by Daniel K. Richter to get them started.

Perhaps they aren't counting children or Indians or women or slaves because they take a narrow view of the word "citizen," applying it only to white males over the age of 21. I prefer to use "citizen" in its Article 2, Section 1, Clause 5 sense, which includes both those born in the US and those residing within its borders. If what they really mean by "majority of citizens" is "white men," they should have just said "white men," because there is no kind of math that is going to make white men a plurality — let alone a majority — of the population at any point in Tennessee's history.

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