Communist and socialist regimes murdered over 100 million of their own people in the last hundred years, and the body count keeps rising; yet young Americans know so little about these tragedies that more and more are describing themselves as “socialists.” How can this be? Unfortunately, teachers are not teaching their students about it. And if it’s true that, as the saying goes, those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it, well, America and humanity are facing major trouble ahead.
There is a national non-profit group working to rectify this: the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. Among other programs, they are teaching and empowering educators to help teach their students about communism. In late July, in my capacity as a teacher of Advanced Economics, I had the opportunity to attend the VOC’s National Seminar for High-School Educators in Washington, D.C. It was a powerful experience.
Even for somebody who has spent over a decade studying and writing on communism — and many years teaching some of America’s brightest high-school seniors about it — the program was very helpful. Teachers who attended the seminar were introduced to a wide range of important documents and essays on communism. We were also offered all sorts of materials and resources that would be helpful in the classroom.
In an email, Dr. Murray Bessette, director of academic programs at VOC, explained briefly why it is so crucial that American children understand:
It is important for students to learn about the ideology, history, and legacy of communism so that they can better participate in self-government. Understanding the necessary connections between the ideas that undergird socialist and communist systems, of which the quest to abolish private property is the sine qua non, and the historical record of mass murder and repression is a prerequisite to understanding the exceptional character of our system of liberty. It is also a prerequisite of understanding the difference between socialism and social democracy, the latter of which is a democratic political system paired with a free market economy, robust protections for private property, high levels of taxation, and a large welfare state. When socialists, democratic or otherwise, point to the Scandinavian countries as examples they seek to obfuscate their true intentions. Understanding the difference is the first step to uncovering such politically motivated deception.
Sadly, American schools, public or private, secular or religious, do not effectively teach young people about communism. More often than not, the history of the conflict between communist totalitarianism and our system of liberty is framed as a contest between two equally legitimate and moral alternatives. Rightly, we would never tolerate such false equivalencies between the Nazis and other fascists and ourselves. Rather, we would correctly point to the essential differences between our system, which protects individuals, and those other systems, which subordinate the individual to the collective. Communism and socialism are correctly classified among the latter type. Instead of teaching the truth, our schools tend to gloss over the crimes of communism, especially in the case of the Soviet Union.
There are many elements to giving students a quality, well-rounded education. One of those is to equip students with the historical knowledge they need — and that must include the horrifying history of communism. But communism is not just history, unfortunately. In fact, one thing we learned at the seminar is that there are more people living under communist regimes today than there were when the Soviet Union ostensibly collapsed. Educators have a duty to ensure that their students know the truth.