Summits, sewers, and students

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts’ piece in the Kansas City Star  (September 30, 2014) sparks thoughts of a brief visit tinged with historical irony Nancy and I made to a part of the arid plains of southeast Colorado a few years ago and the clashes between history and current culture.

Pitts has written about a new member of the school board in Jefferson County, Colorado (Golden is the county seat)  had  proposed the school district’s history courses “promote citizenship , patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-enterprise system.”   Teachers would avoid talking about things that “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”   Teachers would emphasize only the “positive aspects.” of American history.  Pitts called the idea “an act of intellectual vandalism.”

The good news is that the biggest Hell-raisers about this suggestion are the students from five area high schools.  Their revolt has led the school board to say it was “misunderstood” and to say it’s going to revise the idea. Misunderstood?   No, says Pitts, “it was understood all too well.”

Don’t look now but we might be seeing the beginning of a new generation that will not be content with a mediocre to poor education, that might not want to be taught only happy history, that might recognize that society has not been and is not fair—and that has the courage to challenge the idea that good citizenship is based only on “positive aspects” of history or of contemporary society.

Were you paying attention a few days ago when several students at St. Louis Vashon High School  walked out of class to protest the sudden resignation of their principle, the poor attendance record of teachers and inadequate substitutes, and lack of books, among other problems?.  These kids faced automatic expulsion but the district’s Superintendent got them to go back to class with promises of specific actions.

High School students of today unafraid to demand better things, more honest things, in their educations are the seeds of a generation that could bear fruit in a decade or two of tomorrows. And not all of that fruit will be sweet for those who think ignorance of the past is the key to creating a happy, vapid, placid, molded , manipulated future.

How do we know?   Because of history.  Because we have seen in our lifetime what cleansed history does to a people and to their nations.

Leonard Pitts says in his column, “There is a reason that courts require witnesses to tell ‘the truth, the  whole  truth.’   To tell half the truth is to tell a lie of omission…American history, properly understood, is a story about the summit we sometimes reach and the sewer we too often tread, about the work of resolving the tension between America’s dream and its reality.”

We wonder how the school system in Jefferson County, Colorado would teach about that arid piece of  the high plains a few hours’ drive away in Prowers County, Colorado, near the small farming community of Granada.

We turned off of Highway 50 about a mile west of Granada one day to drive through a ghost town.  All that’s left are some foundations and a pump house near the community’s water tank.  Otherwise the gravel streets take us past the weedy lots where there used to be buildings.  About 7,300 people lived there once.  The community lost 31 young men who volunteered to fight in World War II. One of those 31 was awarded the Medal of Honor.

This ghost town is the remnant of Camp Amache.   It is one of ten Japanese internment camps established during the war to hold West Coast Japanese-Americans who were deemed security threats after Pearl Harbor, not because of any specific information that they were plotting against the United States but because they were people of Japanese ancestry.

They were rounded up, allowed to bring only one bag with them, and put inside a camp surrounded by barbed wire fencing and guarded by eight towers with machine guns in them.

Camp Amache existed for about three years.

Fifteen years ago, the Amache Preservation Society was formed in Granada to preserve the site and its records.  A museum has been set up.  And here, we hope, is a punch in the gut for the school officials in Jefferson County, Colorado:  The Amache Preservation Historical Society is a Granada High School group.  The museum was set up by Granada High School Students.

Nancy and I paused in the southwest corner of the camp at the small cemetery that holds the children who died at Camp Amache seven decades ago and we looked at the memorial dedicated to those Japanese-Americans from the camp who volunteered to fight in Erope and to those who died  there.    We had several more miles to go that day.   So we drove back down the gravel street to the highway, turned left onto Highway 50 and headed west.

In our Honda minivan.



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