Teaching the Complicated Legacies of the Founding Fathers

Frederick M. Hess
4 min readFeb 22, 2023

Pedro Noguera, the dean of the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, and I have a podcast (Common Ground: Conversations on Schooling) in which we dig into our disagreements and seek to identify common ground on some of education’s thorniest questions. I thought readers might be interested in occasional snippets of those conversations. This week, as we celebrate Presidents Day, Pedro and I discuss the challenge of teaching students about the legacies of our nation’s Founding Fathers.

— Rick

Pedro: When I was teaching social studies, it was interesting to talk about how someone like Thomas Jefferson could be an advocate for democracy, write the Declaration of Independence, and be a slave owner. How do we reconcile these positions? How do we reconcile the fact that he owned and enslaved his own children, those he fathered with Sally Hemmings, an enslaved woman? I’m not willing to dismiss everything Jefferson ever accomplished, but I think we need to interrogate his contributions to the founding of this nation with an awareness of this information. This, to me, is an important part of confronting our past and grappling with the implications for our future. I think we need to do a better job of teaching contradictions like this one, as well as other aspects of American history that don’t paint this country in a positive light in our schools.

Rick: Yep, I get it. You know, whether it’s Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, or the like — some of this seems like iconoclasm. And there are ideologues in San Francisco or elsewhere who’ve sought to distance themselves from these historical figures by removing their names from street signs and schools. I find all of this shortsighted and toxic. These are hugely significant, fascinating, complicated figures. They had complicated legacies, but I’m utterly comfortable asserting they did vastly more good than bad. Whether one agrees or disagrees with me on that, it’s undeniable they’ve played an immense role in shaping our nation and the world we inhabit. The idea that the answer to their imperfections is to ignore them or demonize them strikes me as ahistorical and irresponsible, especially when the questions they surface are so profound. How could Jefferson write so eloquently about liberty while owning slaves and, as you note, contemplate owning or selling his own child? That’s a psychological pretzel that should fascinate even the least historically inclined.

Pedro: Yeah, we must be willing to prepare students to grapple with facts like these, even if some, like Governor Ron DeSantis, is worried that it may make white students feel bad. I think it’s essential for educators to address topics that are controversial, even if it may hurt some people’s feelings. In that vein, Martin Luther King’s birthday was last month, and we should take note that he is the only American who is not a president for which we celebrate a national holiday. That’s highly significant. It took a while, but every state has adopted it as a national holiday. And on the one hand, I would say he has been fairly sanitized as a figure, and that has allowed him to be widely embraced. But. Let’s remember that before he was murdered, he was in Memphis supporting a strike by sanitation workers, and he was preparing to lead the Poor People’s campaign in Washington D.C. that would have been highly disruptive. The reason why the FBI was monitoring him, especially after he spoke out against the Vietnam War, is because they saw him as a threat. The fact that we now hold him and people like Mohammad Ali, who refused to serve in the armed forces, up as heroes, says a lot about our ability as a nation to change the narrative. But, when we do, we sometimes distort the person, and in doing so, we don’t fully appreciate who they were. Martin Luther King was not only a threat to the racist segregationists in the South. He was also a threat to Democratic politicians like Lyndon Johnson who lost a lot of popular support because of his stance on the Vietnam War. He thought King betrayed him. When we celebrate Dr. King’s birthday, it’s an opportunity to recognize the complex issues that were part of who he was and what he stood for. I think students need to understand this.

Rick: We mostly agree, but first let me hit pause on your comment about DeSantis. I haven’t heard him talk about the problems of making someone feel bad; I have heard him object to instruction which is polemical or preaches ideological doctrines. But we’d have to fix on particular examples and DeSantis quotes in order to sort that out. More generally, I think there’s a good bit of potential common ground here rooted in what you were saying about Jefferson. There are lines from Martin Luther King Jr. that those of us on the right love to quote about content of our character and there are lines of King’s that those on the left love to cite about poverty and employee rights. We should delve into all of this, and those of us on the right need to resist the temptation to turn King into a plaster saint or only embrace the sentiments or speeches that we find convenient. At the same time, my friends on the left absolutely need to bring that same kind of sensibility to the legacies of Jefferson and Washington. If we can find ways to do that, to explore the good and the bad, to acknowledge that these things are knottier and thornier than we like, I think we both honor our heritage and equip our students to make sense of the world they’re inheriting.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. To hear the rest of the conversation, check out Episode 9 of Rick and Pedro’s Common Ground Podcast, “MLK, Jan. 6, and Voting Rights.”

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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Frederick M. Hess

Direct Ed Policy Studies at AEI. Teach a bit at Rice, UPenn, Harvard. Author of books like Cage-Busting Leadership and Spinning Wheels. Pen Ed Week's RHSU blog.