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In Colorado, history gets Botoxed

By David R. Wheeler
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
  • Colorado school district wants to revise curriculum to avoid history of civil disobedience
  • David Wheeler: Students are right to protest, but what if the board succeeds?
  • He says in such a future, those in Colorado will be afraid to fight for rights and equality
  • Wheeler: Instances of disobedience in history offers valuable lessons for citizens

Editor's note: David R. Wheeler is a writer and journalism professor living in Lexington, Kentucky. Follow him on Twitter @David_R_Wheeler The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Hundreds of students in Colorado walked out of classes this week in response to recent attempts by the conservative-leaning Jefferson County board of education to change the school curriculum.

One of the board's most controversial initiatives is to avoid historical instances of civil disobedience while promoting "patriotism, respect for authority and free enterprise."

Imagine for a moment: What if the board succeeds?

What if we step into a time machine and travel to such a future? In such a world, not only have those pesky moments of civil disobedience been put in their proper place, but also their dangerous effects have finally started turning around.

David Wheeler
David Wheeler

For example, the late 1800s look a lot different in Colorado's textbook in the future. Take that troublemaker Susan B. Anthony, who spent 50 years of her life fighting for women's right to vote.

While current textbooks applaud her courage in the face of a trial, conviction and $100 fine for illegally casting a ballot in the 1872 presidential election, the Colorado textbook of the future might well ensure that her story is blotted out.

And even though there's no repealing women's right to vote, future generations of girls at least know never to protest against continuing forms of gender inequality, such as being paid less for doing the same job as a man. To fight for equal pay would be unpatriotic, disrespectful, and contemptuous of CEOs, who -- let's face it -- ultimately know what's best for us.

The progressive movement of the early 20th century would likely look different in Colorado's textbook of the future. While current textbooks detail the illegal labor strikes that eventually led to things like a 40-hour work week and workplace safety laws, future textbooks may make no mention of it.

In the future, students would understand that it's unpatriotic to question an employer for any reason. Asking for things like cost-of-living raises just makes companies want to leave the U.S. and go someplace where they can hire people who will work for even less money. The lesson: If you want a job at all, better keep your mouth shut and watch your wages decline.

Finally, in the Colorado textbooks of the future, the civil rights movement could be recast in the proper light. For example, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King could be depicted as disobedient rabble-rousers rather than brave fighters for equality. How dare Rosa Parks -- a black woman -- sit in the front of the bus? In Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, that was illegal, not to mention disrespectful and unpatriotic.

And how dare the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lead peaceful marches for equality without a permit? That was also illegal in many Southern cities, and he rightfully went to jail for the crime.

Thus, Colorado students of the future would know that fighting for equality among the races is dangerous and might get you into trouble. Best to just accept the status quo despite stubborn discrepancies between the races in categories like student achievement, household income, and incarceration.

No, I don't really have a time machine, and no one can predict the future. But we can and should look at the past with a critical eye. Our history is filled with seemingly powerless people banding together, following their conscience, and making a positive change, despite the anger of rich and powerful people, who like things to stay just the way they are.

As we face a future of widening inequality, resurgent discrimination, and decreasing wages, we would do well to follow the example of the Colorado students who are peacefully disobeying authorities and fighting for a truthful account of history in their textbooks.

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