Ken Burns on How to Teach the Dark Parts of History

3 minute read

With the new school year underway, what’s being taught in K-12 history classes is still a hot-button political issue. 

In the wake of the 2020 murder of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, by a white police officer in Minneapolis, there was a renewed push for diversity, equity, and inclusion trainings in workplaces and schools. While the country struggled to reckon with the racism in its past and present, some parents became concerned that how teachers approach the dark history that provides context for the tragedy could make kids grow up to hate America. As one conservative 2021 ad supporting a New Hampshire bill to prevent the teaching of “divisive concepts” described what’s at stake: “Last year, radicals destroyed statues and burned cities. Now in many New Hampshire schools they’re brainwashing our children to hate America and each other.”

The pitched battle in classrooms, school boards, legislatures, and political races over how to teach history in America continues. Since Jan. 2021, at least 44 states have proposed or taken actions designed to restrict how teachers discuss racism and sexism, according to Education Week. And in 2022, the American Library Association saw the largest wave of book ban attempts since it started tracking them more than 20 years ago—efforts that are often coming from the right and targeting books that talk about gender and racial identities. Some Republican candidates running for President in 2024 have spotlighted the issue, perhaps none more so than Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who tried to ban AP African American Studies earlier this year and backs an alternative to the SAT in Florida that tests knowledge of Christian writings.

In this video provided exclusively to TIME, Oscar-nominated documentarian Ken Burns discusses how to teach a complete history of America while still inspiring students with Katharina Matro, a high school history teacher in Bethesda, Maryland, who grew up in Germany. Produced by Burns’ website UNUM, the video features Matro explaining the lessons American teachers can take from how Germany deals with its history of the Holocaust in classrooms, while Burns talks about the state of the culture wars in the U.S. and the most engaging history class he took growing up.

“A lot of this has become politicized," Burns says, "so this idea that if you teach a complete history you’re 'woke' and therefore somehow grooming and subjecting people to a kind of manipulation, that ignores the even worse manipulation if you don’t tell it, if you sanitize it.”

Click here to watch the full conversation on UNUM.

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