A Basic Foundation

Last week was spring break for my two elementary school-age grandchildren. When they visited us mid-week and learned that I would be away for the last two days of the week to attend the Virginia Forum, they wondered aloud why I would want to attend something that sounded like school when it was supposed to be vacation time. I explained that I like learning new things and that I always learn something new about Virginia’s history when I attend the Forum. It is like school, graduate school that is, when historians and scholars present papers and discussions are held on the latest research on Virginia’s past. The critical discussions would never meet the standards of the censors that occupy the State Department of Education who with the approval of the governor are about getting controversy and divisive theories out of the classroom.

The other reason I attend the Virginia Forum every year that I did not take the time to explain to my young grandchildren is that I believe a basic and sound foundation for our future can only be accomplished to the degree to which we honestly examine and understand our past. Certainly the history of the Commonwealth is filled with the glorification of events, a Lost Cause movement to cover up the reasons for and consequences of major events, and political movements that tell the stories that will keep certain interests in power. Nonpartisan and essentially nonpolitical historians, researchers, and scholars at Virginia Forum examine in astonishing detail the events of our past with a close examination of documented facts. So much of the state’s written history is totally male-dominated and whitewashed. At the Forum we learned of the incredible research and writing of Suzanne Lebsock who helps us understand the important role that women who we have not heard from previously played In the building of our state and country. Others presented papers on white supremacy that prevailed during most of our history.

Knowing factually what happened in the past can help us from making the same mistakes again. A governor was elected with the promise of getting rid of parole in our justice system and thereby lowering crime. He succeeded in effectively eliminating parole, and we have prisons stuffed with people who with little or no risk could be returned to society as productive citizens. The legislature is now attempting to have honest debate about the impact of a no-parole policy, but that easy-answer political slogan still resonates with people who are not well informed. Parole needs very much to be reformed, not eliminated, in order that it can be part of a criminal justice system that is restorative. Nonpartisan history of the problem can help us understand how it can be a positive part of our criminal justice system.

Another governor got elected on a simple slogan of “End the car tax.” He was successful in getting nearly a billion dollars — which continues to be appropriated even today — that the state uses for paying the local car tax. It was a very unpopular tax, but the political answer denies the education budget a million dollars every year.

To the extent to which we can honestly understand the past, we can build a strong basic foundation for the future.

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