Eighth Grade Civics Refresher

An Open Letter To Senators Rucker, Azinger, Sypolt, Karnes, Maynard and Delegates Pritt, Smith, Tully, Longanacre, G. Ward, Maynor, Crouse, Clark, Horst, and Hanna

Ah, Senators Rucker, Azinger, Sypolt, Karnes, Maynard and Delegates Pritt, Smith, Tully, Longanacre, G. Ward, Maynor, Crouse, Clark, Horst, and Hanna, I think you must have been absent from significant portions of Civics in the Eighth grade. Before you seek to pass (the proposed) Senate Bill 498 and House Bill 4011, perhaps a refresher in this subject is in the offing? As I was a Middle School Teacher, and then a Professor teaching Teachers for 21 years, please allow me to assist you in grasping some constructs that you have obviously failed to master.

This won’t hurt…much.

So to review, Delegates and Senators, Thomas Jefferson tells us that we have the right to be free in most any proper way we justifiably see fit; We should not have to pay taxes for the right to have any government tell us what to say or believe, and that we are compelled to use logic, reason, and methods of rational inquiry to expand human understanding, refusing to sacrifice so-called ideals of “unity” for “liberty”. You, however, wish as two legislative bodies to bind our mouths and our minds such that not only can we not speak of things some might call “divisive”, but we cannot even elucidate nor enunciate difficult truths that might cast dispersion on some groups of people, past or present, for their own actions?

I thought that you guys were the party of personal responsibility. No?

Now here I thought Thomas Jefferson was a GOP poster boy, a Federalist’s heartthrob! However, these bills (aptly named “Divisive Acts”) stand categorically against Jeffersonian principals and ethics. In fact, they stand against American principles and ethics, most of all, our Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Almost all of what our Founding Fathers wrote—every single note, treatise, and article, argued for our right to be a nation of free people, able to speak and act in ways that furthered the public discourse, convention and government proclamations be damned. Were you to have proposed such a Bill in Jefferson’s time, he might have failed all of you at the University of Virginia (my alma mater).

We West Virginians have the right to speak and assemble freely, including in schools. Disagreement is how we BECAME a republic, Delegates and Senators, if you will remember. Had we NOT disagreed, we would be preparing to celebrate Her Majesty’s 70 years on the throne, and not our 246 th birthday on July 4 th. Many of our detractors felt we might buckle under the weight of our disagreements (as they do to the present day), but we didn’t suppress dissent like the British, nor did we practice self-immolation like the French, We spoke, we dissented, we were divided but then we came back together, always seeking to find that which Jefferson (VA), Gouveneur Morris (NY) and James Madison (VA) called in the Preamble of the Constitution a “…more perfect union…”

While we haven’t found said perfection, you condemn the youth of our state to ignorance and lower-level thought when you propose that no Teacher could call the Swastika and Nazism objectively wrong, or lynching of Blacks a heinous, illegal act of murder. We are not like former President Trump, equivocating between “good people on all sides”. Some people and ideas aren’t good. Some folks are indeed racists, sexist, homophobic, bigoted in every way. That First Amendment implores us, both Teacher and Student, to speak freely and expose our tainted and unworthy ideas in the pursuit of serious learning.

We WANT people in our state who critically think, can debate the issues, and ask profound questions. They can’t do those things if Educators are muzzled, and we fail to call out what is egregiously wrong and list its errors. Jefferson, Madison, Washington, Hamilton, and all the rest of our “Founding Fathers”, Abraham Lincoln and Francis Marion Pierpont Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Martin Delaney knew it that enforced silence = Death where this is concerned. Mother Jones, Booker T. Washington, Coralee Franklin Cook (Suffragist and great-granddaughter of Jefferson who taught at Storer College), Walter Reuther, and of course, many a Miner who died during the Mine Wars for simply trying to organize to earn a better living. Dissent and debate are the hallmarks not of insolence and ignorance, but of great depth in knowledge. Evaluation between two often opposite ideas is the highest order of thinking, something we should be wanting our young people to strive toward, not shun. In order to build our state’s 21st-century economy, we don’t need more “yes men”; We need those who can discern right from wrong, weakness from true strength, and ignorance from intelligence.

America is strong enough to endure not only the sins of the world, but its own sins, and still keep shining on. West Virginians know what is right and what is wrong. They are neither intellectually nor emotionally weak. We know that we can’t always agree sometimes, but we need not be disagreeable, and we don’t need everyone to think just like we do to get along.

We have REAL problems in our beautiful Mountain State that we send all of YOU down to Charleston to solve. Instead of launching un-American bills that won’t stand up against the REAL US Constitution, how about ensuring that every one of our Teachers is teaching the US Constitution in ways that our young people can understand, so that should they wish to debate its merits, they do so aptly and faithfully, making Jefferson, Madison and even the late Robert C. Byrd, the 20th century’s greatest Constitutional champion (who loved it so much that he carried it in his breast pocket every single day of his fifty-seven years in the US Senate) proud of who we are, and who we are becoming in these hills.

Let our Teachers teach the truth, and let our students learn the truth.

Sheila Coleman-Castells is an Educator and Professor of Education with over 30 years of experience and a Political Activist living in North Central WV with her son and two 2016 flood rescue dogs from Nicholas County.

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