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John Krull commentary: Time to own up to our nation’s history

My grandfather was a career educator.

He started teaching school even before he finished college. In the early days of the 20th century a person could do that.

He started first in the classroom, showed skill at management and leadership and spent the bulk of his career as a principal. He loved the work. The first in his family to attend and graduate college, he believed education was the ultimate agent of liberation, a force so powerful that it could transform a poor farm boy descended from unlanded and unlettered Scotch-Irish immigrants into a learned man and a community leader.

He also was a lifelong Republican.

He believed in the party of Lincoln with the same fervor that he reserved for education. He revered the Grand Old Party because he respected what he saw as its commitment to realism, to seeing and confronting things as they really were.

That mattered to him because he thought acknowledging truth and accepting responsibility for one’s actions represented the only path to growth.

“If you can’t stand to look at or think about something you’ve done, most likely you shouldn’t have done it. And if you shouldn’t have done it, you should own up to that,” he told me when I just was entering my teen years.

Wise words and good advice then.

Wise words and good advice now.

I have been thinking about Grandpa a lot during the debate playing out over what schools should teach and what teachers should say about controversial and painful subjects in American history. I have wondered what he would think about the dispute.

That debate has careened from being convoluted to being absurd. It started—supposedly—with a concern that critical race theory was being taught in Indiana schools.

It isn’t.

Critical race theory—or CRT—is a complex and nuanced system of legal and intellectual thought that looks at American history and institution through the lens of race. It considers the consequences, sometimes unintended, that racial views have had on American life.

In some circles—largely, but not entirely, Republican ones—CRT has morphed into something more ominous, a belief structure that does nothing but find fault with America, and particularly white Americans. Many of the more extreme members of Grandpa’s party—the party of Lincoln—have pushed back against the idea that America or white Americans ever might have done anything wrong.

Their answer to what they see as the presence of CRT in Hoosier schools is to attempt to curtail the ways Indiana teachers can discuss questions of race, gender, sexual orientation and ideology in the classroom.

The legislative proposals to cage Hoosier teachers already has attracted national attention. Late-night talk show host Stephen Colbert made an anti-CRT bill author, Sen. Scott Baldwin, R-Noblesville, a focus of a derisive section of Colbert’s opening monologue.

Baldwin earned the attention by arguing during a hearing that teachers should be “neutral” when talking about Nazism, fascism and communism. When his hands-off approach to discussing totalitarianism made him the butt of many national jokes, Baldwin backed away from the comments.

Foolish as Baldwin’s statements were, they weren’t the most absurd ones offered during the discussion.

That honor goes to Rep. Tony Cook, R-Cicero.

Cook has argued that principles enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, particularly in the amendments offering equal protection, extending voting rights and banning slavery, run counter to racist beliefs.

Perhaps, but Cook’s argument overlooks the fact that the reason the Constitution had to be amended is that racism was enshrined in this country’s foundational charter at the beginning. It was in the Constitution that enslaved Black Americans were counted as three-fifths of a human being for voting purposes.

That part of the Constitution often is cited as evidence of the founders’ desire to degrade Black human beings. It is that.

But it also was something worse.

That piece of the Constitution increased the voting strength of slaveholders and thus made enslaved people unwilling accomplices in their own oppression.

To atone for that injustice, we Americans now have endured one of the bloodiest civil wars in history and have spent another 160 years arguing about race and right and wrong.

That’s our history,

If we can’t face that, then, as my grandfather said, we shouldn’t have done it.

That’s why it’s important that we own up to it.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.