Iowa educators demonstrated their knowledge of and respect for history via an op-ed letter chastising the embarrassing comments U.S. Rep. Steve King made last week. The letter, published in the Des Moines Register Tuesday, was penned by Iowa State Assistant Professor Katy Swalwell and signed by over 100 historians and social studies educators across Iowa.
Swalwell begins by clarifying that the letter comes from a “professional and moral obligation” to denounce King’s comments followed by an explanation of his inaccuracies.
It reads: “For literally thousands of years, people of color, people who are not Christian and cultures outside of “the West” have made profound contributions in every domain of society — on every continent — even during eras of brutal oppression and violence against them by white “Westerners” and Christians who worked in well-documented ways to deny, ignore and eradicate their contributions.”
Following the letter’s publication, Swalwell explained to Little Village by email how she’d react if a student made comments similar to King’s in her classroom.
“How a teacher responds, however, depends on the context and constraints of the particular classroom,” Swalwell said. “A quick response like, ‘There are some people who believe that, but it’s actually not true and we’re going to learn a lot more about it this year’ could be most appropriate in the moment. If a teacher has more time and curricular freedom, they could help the student turn their ideas into questions that would be the foundation for rigorous inquiry.”
The second half of the letter implores King — and anyone who might hold the same beliefs — to use his comments as a teachable moment. It urges teachers and school administrators, parents, historians and foundations to find ways best suiting their roles to “highlight and work against the racism, xenophobia and religious intolerance in our communities and educational system.”
But not everyone, particularly teachers, might feel certainty when put in a situation calling for correction.
“I think some teachers are worried that it is partisan to challenge a student’s beliefs, but it isn’t partisan to teach kids facts or to help them practice basing their opinions on facts — or at least I hope it isn’t,” Swalwell said.
The letter also asks readers to consider how promoting inaccurate history can affect the future of our societies.
“What kind of history do we want our children to learn: one that is inaccurate, dangerous and embarrassing or one that is evidence-based, inclusive and inspiring,” says the letter. “If we are to live with peace and justice in a pluralistic society, we must all work together to ensure it is the latter.”
=Swalwell ended her comments to Little Village with a hopeful vision for King’s response to the letter.
“It would be great if Representative King responded by expressing curiosity and a desire to learn more about history and by acknowledging that he’s working on unlearning ideas rooted in racism and xenophobia,” she said. “That would be a great model for the young people in our state.”
When contacted, a representative from King’s Washington, D.C. office said King has no comment regarding the letter.
Nonetheless, UI Professor Leslie Schwalm — who signed the letter — interpreted King’s remarks as a motivational reminder for educators.
“As a nation we continue to struggle with the devastating consequences of white supremacy,” Schwalm said by email. “Iowa’s educators are reminded, by King’s remarks, that our work is far from done. We offer this letter as a way of recommitting ourselves, publicly, to the work of overcoming the kind of hateful ignorance that King offered.”
Read the letter in its entirety here.
Update: This story has been updated to include comments from Katy Swalwell, Leslie Schwalm and Rep. Steve King.