Self-examination: the real lesson

The Midwest has sex education, the South, the theory of evolution -– timeworn and tired education debates both. So leave it to we Northwesterners, in our comparative sophistication, to find a more engaging bugaboo in the public school curriculum over which to agonize: the World War II internment of Japanese Americans.

Of late, parents have turned out in numbers before the school board to debate the merits of an intermediate-school inquiry called “Leaving Our Island.” Supporters see the

program as intrinsic to local history – the first folks rounded up by the government in 1942 were members of our island community – while detractors consider it “propaganda,” taught without context and biased against our own nation.

Let us say that parents of all stripes should take an interest in the school curriculum, and engage both district and community when they have concerns. In that sense, it’s been a useful discussion (and a lot more interesting than another dustup over Wardell Pomeroy or Charles Darwin).

But there is a delicious irony here: that in political circles where usually is denounced our culture’s descent into “moral relativism,” the idea that someone might teach the internment with moral certainty -- that it was plainly wrong – is now suspect. One senses that there’s an agenda in play beyond the questions of fairness and historical accuracy, when the internment lesson is criticized for the contemplation of current events that it inevitably inspires.

Since 9/11, Americans have done their best to make sense of the savage attacks on our nation. Some have cast the issue in a simple dichotomy of Good vs. Evil, to undeniable political effect; others posit a more nuanced worldview, one that considers such events within the context of the complex and often conflicting political and economic interests of many nations and cultures.

Raise the latter notion too loudly, and you may well be branded part of an insidious “Blame America First” movement – the current catchphrase of choice to blunt critical analysis of our nation’s role in the world, and one that echoes clearly in complaints over the internment curriculum.

Indeed, if you believe your country should barrel through history with a sense of national infallibility, then the internment is an inconvenient part of your heritage. Acknowledge that FDR erred in putting his own citizens behind barbed wire, and you might have to contemplate the possibility that more current administrations can make missteps of their own -- questionable foreign wars, murky domestic security acts, indefinite incarcerations, what have you. And that would be awkward to ponder, especially in an election year.

All the more reason for our schools to foster such inquiries; as the unexamined life is not worth living, the unexamined

history can too easily be relived. For the most important lesson of “Leaving Our Island” will ultimately be the value of self-examination – as individuals, as citizens, as a nation.

The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II represented a unique intersection of local, national and world events, and it resonates deeply within this community. It needs to be taught in our public schools.

And don’t worry. You can love your country and still believe that it screws up from time to time. Millions of upstanding American citizens have no trouble reconciling those two

concepts, and Bainbridge Island sixth-graders won’t either.

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