Last summer when I sat down with the Standards of Learning (SOLs) and planned out our homeschool year, I tossed most of the social studies section in the trash. In Virginia, second grade social studies leans heavily on American history, with emphasis on famous American figures, patriotic symbols and meanings, and early major events like the Revolutionary war.
I never understood the reasoning behind that. Sure, we should understand the basics of our own country’s history, but an overview of history and where we fit in seems more appropriate at this age. Why should American history come before world history?
Field trips do a great job of teaching history
We’ve discussed our country’s origins and history here and there as we encounter it through field trips. My kids have seen the original Star Spangled Banner, a colonial town, a Native American longhouse, and a real Spanish galleon. Along the way we’ve had hard conversations that cover the more damning bits of our history, but we’ve never delved deeply into the muck that is our country’s legacy because they were just too young.
My oldest is finally old enough to understand the hard conversations. My younger two aren’t – they’re still too wiggly, too inattentive, and too little.
The museum we haven’t been to
This week we finally visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture in DC. I’ve wanted to go for a while, but crowds were too big, it required passes, and feedback I got from fellow homeschoolers worried me that my kids wouldn’t be able to behave. They still didn’t behave. The little ones had a really hard time, and my oldest only made it through 1 level.
The museum is split into 2 sections: one with culture and community exhibits, and one with history. We only attempted the history this time. And we started at the beginning – in the bottom level labeled Slavery and Freedom 1400-1877.
Truth isn’t easy
It was hard. Brutal. Many of the displays were deceptively simple and straightforward until you read the information and absorbed what it meant. The Engineer wanted to know why one entire case was filled with sand and what looked like cooking implements – I explained that it was sugar. I briefly gave him an answer, but we didn’t fully unpack the implications of that display until today, when we discussed sugar plantations.
The Engineer was drawn to a display across the wall showing boats. Wooden sailing ships, of various designs. He asked me what the numbers below the pictures represented. I took a minute to respond because I had to get my own emotions under control. Each ship had a name of a country, a time frame, and a large number. France, a few hundred years, and 1.25 million.
When I told him that the 1.25 million represented how many people French ships had transported in the slave trade, he stopped. He went silent for a moment. Then he asked me to go down the line, reading the countries and numbers to him. I choked up at Portugal, with its 55.8 million, and stumbled over Denmark’s 85,000.
Moving further through history
We made it to the section with the statues of great American founders, where their quotes were displayed along with their own involvement in the slave trade. It was busy, crowded even on a weekday, so we didn’t spend long. I explained that these were the people who founded America and proclaimed it a free country, while still owning slaves. He exclaimed “then how was it a free county?!” I explained that our country was built on slavery, and that no, it wasn’t a free country unless you were male, had white skin, and lots of money.
That was as much as he could take. He absorbed pictures and videos we passed on the way up the 3 levels of ramps, and then we left. Over the next few days, we’re unpacking that information and discussing it. Today we touched on what drove slavery, the similar way Native Americans were treated, Christopher Columbus, and what it really meant to be a slave.
Despite all our discussions and reading books about this, it didn’t really make an impact until we went to the museum. He has to absorb the information visually before he can understand it.
Instead of learning about the Pilgrims in detail, my son learned about the first slave ship that made it to North America before settlers did. Instead of talking about what great friends Europeans and Native Americans were, we discussed the moral implications of trading a handful of beads and trinkets for land. We compared Thomas Jefferson’s accomplishments to his his personal actions and put them in context. And we covered how greed and economics drove our country’s direction far more than any search for freedom.
For a 7-year-old, that’s pretty deep. I’m proud of him for asking the hard questions and thinking through things, even as I wish that our country’s history wasn’t so bloody and stained. I don’t want him to hate his own country. I do want him to know the truth.