“Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” – attributed to writer and philosopher George Santayana
Teaching history is important. Learning history is vital. If we do not know from where we came, how can we know where we are going?
The co-founder of the Grateful American Book Prize, David Bruce Smith, is a watchdog on how well the country is doing in teaching history. He and prize co-founder Dr. Bruce Cole, former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, are concerned by the lack of knowledge among America's youth about the history of the country.
A study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that only 18 percent of eighth-graders were proficient in U.S. history.
As disturbing as that is, equally as troubling are efforts to rewrite or revise history by judging people and actions of the past using today’s standards.
Had the Great American Book Prize been around in Laura Ingalls Wilder's time, she might have won it. Yet now here name is being removed from a major award because of how the "Little House on the Prairie" author portrayed minorities in her novels.
"This decision was made in consideration of the fact that Wilder's legacy, as represented by her body of work, includes expressions of stereotypical attitudes inconsistent with ALSC's core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness," the Association for Library Service to Children said in a statement after the unanimous vote.
According to the organization's website, "the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award honors an author or illustrator whose books, published in the United States, have made, over a period of years, a substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children."
It will now be called the Children's Literature Legacy Award.
Wilder, born in 1867, published her first "Little House on the Prairie" book in 1932; the seven subsequent novels about pioneer life in the West were published through 1943, just 14 years before she died. Wilder was presented the first award in 1954, after which it was named for her and presented every five years between 1960 and 1980, every three years between 1980 and 2001, every two years between 2001 and 2015 and annually since then.
As reported by The Associated Press, the racial issues in her books have been debated long before February, when the ALSC announced it would be voting on whether to keep Wilder's name on its award, calling her legacy "complex." At the forefront of the argument is her handling of black and Native American characters, both in name-calling and characterization.
Count us among those contending the books and their handling of non-white characters can be used as a teaching lesson without ignoring the important family values.
"It would be easy to take these books off the shelf, to say that they -- like many books of their time -- were steeped in white supremacy and racism and therefore they do not belong in our canon," James Noonan, a research affiliate with the Justice In Schools project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, wrote on the university's website. He was quoted in the AP report.
"It would also be easy to read all of the pages full of wonder and wild adventure and a family's love and skip over the parts that inconveniently don't fit that narrative.”
But that should not be.
Considering that so many of the figures from the past are under attack and being judged by today's standards and that many of the tenets of our democracy are being questioned or are openly under attack, the time has never been more right to get young people interested in history.
Yet casting a negative shadow over authors such as Laura Ingalls Wilder in a politically correct move is dangerously revisionist at best and just plain wrong at worse.