California to teach gay history

Gov. Jerry Brown has signed into law a bill requiring California to teach gay history to its students:

“History should be honest,” Brown, a Democrat serving his second stint as California governor, said in a written statement released by his office.

The measure won final passage from the state legislature earlier this month when it passed on a 49-25 party-line vote, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed.

“This bill revises existing laws that prohibit discrimination in education and ensures that the important contributions of Americans from all backgrounds and walks of life are included in our history books,” Brown said. “It represents an important step forward for our state.

The law also requires that public schools teach the contributions of Pacific Islanders and the disabled.

California already mandates that schools include historical accomplishments by Native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans and European Americans.

Of course, probably everyone who voted for it did so out of as much of an agenda as those who voted against it. One group wants to help minorities rise up while the other is fearful that their kids might catch gay. Or something like that. Either way, I don’t think those should be the biggest concerns here for either side. Instead, I think what matters is, is this good history? And will this distract from broader themes that ought to be basic knowledge for every American?

What I have often found in my work as well as general interaction with teenagers and kids is that there is a surprising level of ignorance about history. I don’t mean the sort of ignorance currently popular amongst the Bachmanns and Palins of the world. I mean the sort of ignorance that is indicative of a complete lack of familiarity with the subject. And this extends beyond anecdote. Polls of adults and tests of students show we don’t know as much as we should.

So the issue here, I think, is how much can we include in these lessons? I don’t think adding the accomplishments of Harvey Milk to the curriculum is going to take away from talking about bigger historical issues like Reconstruction or the Great Depression, but it is worth considering what is worthy of required inclusion. As interesting as so many historical issues may be, the fact is there is a time limit to these lessons and priorities need to be set. I do support this law, but I do so with some caution.