Monday, July 21, 2014
An Arizona charter school, Heritage Academy, is purportedly using two of Cleon Skousen’s books, “The 5,000 Year Leap” and “The Making of America,” in its high school history class. The books depict American slavery in a racist and sympathetic light. Skousen, for instance, includes an essay arguing that “if [African-American children] ran naked it was generally from choice, and when the white boys had to put on shoes and go away to school they were likely to envy the freedom of their colored playmates.” Professor Garret Epps, University of Baltimore School of Law, explains that “parts of [Skousen's] major textbook … present a systematically racist view of the Civil War” with a “long description of slavery in the book” arguing that slavery was “beneficial to African-Americans and that Southern racism was caused by the ‘intrusion’ of Northern abolitionists and advocates of equality for the freed slaves.” The school's founder and principal defends the use of the books, stating that "Our purpose is not to convert students to different religious views. It is to show them that religion influenced what the Founders did.”
Rushing to judgment in book cases is all too easy, and that is how school boards and state departments of education find themselves in lawsuits. All books can have value in the classroom. What matters is not the views the books espouse, but how those views are presented to students. As a litany of establishment clause cases has shown us, the Ten Commandments and the Bible can be used in school, if used in the proper context. The problem is that the proper context is most often lacking.The Americans United for Separation of Church and State say that context is lacking in Heritage Academy. They argue the school is using the texts to affirmatively promote the wrong values. According to local sources, the school was founded to promote a religious perspective regarding the country's founding. Thus, Americans United argues that these books are but current iterations of those motivations, mixing racism and religion.
I "trust" the state department of education will look into the matter further and develop the facts necessary to put the controversy to rest one way or the other. If, however, it turns out the book has been misused, this may serve as just one more sad example of how states that fail to consider charter schools for their capacity to serve the greater good, rather than a smaller group's concept of "the good," can get public education into trouble. At this point, the damage would already be done for those students who have passed through the school's doors. If the school has done nothing wrong, this is but another example of illegitimate book wars.