Danny Westneat / Times staff columnist
Some things are not debatable
Recently some parents contended it is "propaganda" to teach sixth-graders that the internment of Japanese Americans was a mistake. But Vander Stoep held firm that Sakai Intermediate School would teach that the internment was a bad move. And then the 25-year veteran of public schools said this: "There are some things that we can say aren't debatable anymore."
That's quite a sweeping statement. Coming from an educator, some will say it reeks of close-mindedness.
But I salute her. In one sentence she voiced an important principle: that not all ideas are equal. It's a notion that seems increasingly lost in a society more smitten with spin than fact-based argument.
Take the World War II internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans that began in 1942. For some reason we are arguing, 62 years later, about whether rounding up and incarcerating people of one race was a good idea.
The debate was prompted, in part, by former Seattle Times editorial writer Michelle Malkin, who wrote a book defending the internment. Her thesis is that some Japanese Americans were spies and so the racial profiling was justified.
That's provocative stuff. But it's so counter to any historical scholarship that it amazes me we're even discussing it.
Don't take it from me. Last week, 39 historians and researchers, including faculty from Harvard, Stanford and the University of Washington, said Malkin's work is "distorted," "historically inaccurate" and "presents a version of history that is contradicted by several decades of scholarly research."
Even if you discount these 39 historians, and also ignore the moral implications of jailing innocent people, it still is indisputable in hindsight that the internment was a failure and a colossal waste of money. There just isn't any evidence it fulfilled its stated purpose, which was to catch spies and prevent acts of espionage.
That's what they are teaching the sixth-graders on Bainbridge Island — that the internment uprooted the lives of American citizens and failed to achieve its security goals.
What's more, students explore how echoes of the internment can be found in the current war on terror, what with some people being jailed without being charged or having access to a lawyer.
Isn't this what the teaching of history is for? It's not to give equal time to all ideas, regardless of merit. It's to describe the past accurately, and then analyze it to learn why it happened and what it means today.
There are plenty of things to learn about the internment, from its causes to its effects today. Trying to give credence to the notion that it was somehow a success seems as counterproductive as it is wrong.
What Vander Stoep did was a small thing. It doesn't compare to when legendary Bainbridge Review editors Walt and Milly Woodward were lone voices against the internment as it was happening.
But fighting bad ideas is always important work, and for that she deserves our thanks.
Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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