Wanting kindergartners to critique George Washington

Gilbert Stuart's George Washington

Joanne Jacobs has the story of the growing reaction to a post by a mother/teacher/blogger on the Edutopia site complaining that her kindergartner son told her he’d learned in school that George Washington was a good president. The seething mother wanted her son to know that Washington had been a slaveowner and that he joined the Revolution so that he could become richer. The post has generated lots of comments and a number of items in other blogs. (And it is alleged that some comments critical of the blogger were taken down.) Joanne assembles the package on her blog.

This is a good example of what historians call “presentism,” which is the tendency to judge historical figures as they would be judged today. You can’t understand Washington without understanding the economy, the technology, and the political philosophies of the time.

It’s interesting that the far-right conservatives down in Texas want Jefferson out of the curriculum because he talked about separation of church and state. And the left wants Washington and other Founding Fathers rhetorically flogged because most of them were slaveholders — and they were white and they were men.

It is important, to be sure, to understand Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams, Madison and the other founders as more than cardboard cutouts labeled heroes. But it is also important to understand Washington’s tactical brilliance as a general, his reluctance to serve as an executive, his ability to unite a young and divided nation, and his willingness to walk away from power. A strong nation like the United States needs shared stories that help us understand who we are.

— Richard Lee Colvin