Pam Mazanec, a member of the Colorado board of education, made headlines last week after expressing concerns that the new Advanced Placement U.S. History framework and sample test downplay what she calls the country’s “noble history.” What specifically triggered a groundswell of national social media chatter – and criticism – was her Facebook posting that said the United States ended slavery voluntarily. “As an example, I note our slavery history,” she wrote to a woman who teaches AP U.S History. “Yes, we practiced slavery. But we also ended it voluntarily, at great sacrifice, while the practice continues in many countries still today!” Mazanec had refused to discuss her posting with The Colorado Independent before we ran the article that triggered the intense mediated reaction. On Monday, however, she talked with Editor Susan Greene about the story and how she believes her comment has been widely misunderstood.
How, specifically, do you feel readers have misinterpreted your point about the U.S. having ended slavery voluntarily?
I was commenting that students should get both the positive and negative perspectives about history. And, as an example of how that would be done, I used the topic of slavery. The point I was trying to make is that slavery is a dark part of our history, a shameful part of our history. I feel our students should have a full, deep and rich understanding of slavery. That’s the negative part in this example. On the positive side, ultimately we as a nation abolished slavery through the 13th Amendment. So my comment was meant to provide an example of how we could teach students the full history, the shameful practice of slavery, but also that we as a nation abolished slaver and that is to our credit.
What triggered the most criticism was your use of the word “voluntarily.” How can you say we ended slavery voluntarily when it took a civil war to get there?
When I made the statement, I assumed that all the readers of course knew that the Civil War was fought and that it was a long, bloody, difficult war that divided citizens and their families. I assumed that I didn’t have to explain or point out that the war was fought to end slavery, at least in part, in large part. And I was directly referring to the Civil War, the lives lost and the division among citizens by saying it came “at great sacrifice.” By “voluntarily,” I meant the passage of the 13th Amendment. My posting wasn’t meant as a treatise or a survey or review of all the complicated factors, motivations and resistance that happened along the way or afterward. It was a simple point – a short example of teaching the good, the bad and the ugly…
I watched the movie “Lincoln.” I read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book that the movie was based on – “A Team of Rivals” – a fascinating, rich, full history of Abraham Lincoln’s time in power and his rise to power. I fully understand that it’s not simple. But I was trying to make a simple statement and I used the word “voluntarily” to refer to our passage of the 13th Amendment. I had no sinister motivation. The motivation was to state how we got from A to C, assuming everybody knew what B was. And yet people jumped to the conclusion that I didn’t understand the Civil War was fought in part to end slavery. The fact that they jumped to that conclusion is a surprise and disappointment to me.
Can you see why people get prickly when hearing you say the nation voluntarily ended slavery?
My comment in no way was intended to brush aside or ignore the fact that the amendment came about after the longest, bloodiest, most painful war in our history that divided families, neighbors, friends. I assumed that everyone involved in that thread already knew that. Maybe I should have said “ultimately” instead of “voluntarily” abolished slavery. But the meaning would have been the same: We had a shameful practice and we did act to end it. We acted to abolish it. And our constitution provided the pathway for it – “All men are created equal.” That’s part of our country’s noble history.
What does the expression “noble history” mean to you?
For me, I think it’s fair to say what’s noble about our national history is that our founders created a framework that focused on the individual’s rights — that an individual had several rights as opposed to the system they came from. They were ruled by a monarchy. In America, they created a system that allowed individuals to reach as far as they could. Their success would be based on their own effort and ingenuity, not their pre-determined class. So they created based on laws, not men. Nobody gets special privilege because of who they are. Every effort, every act made in adherence to that principle — that’s noble. I wouldn’t say the Civil War was noble. The Civil War was evidence that sometimes great sacrifice must be made to eventually prevail. The 13th Amendment was noble. Recognizing all the circumstances that were involved in passing it, I understand that it wasn’t easy. It wasn’t perfect. My point was that as a nation we did the right thing.
Why do you think your comment triggered such a big reaction online — in Colorado, nationally and even internationally?
While I agree that I could have crafted my statement better, I think there was a leap to a conclusion about what I was saying that fit an agenda. Those who are motivated to misunderstand or to paint my knowledge of history and my positions on how it should be taught leapt to a conclusion that was quite a leap. The reaction has been what I would call irrational. It was a gleeful landing on a conclusion that was predetermined — that I sit on the state board of education and I don’t even understand our history.
Why wouldn’t you explain your comment before the article was published? Why, early on, didn’t you take the opportunity to address what people were criticizing you for online?
When I got the message that you were doing a story on the Facebook post, I thought ‘what’s the story?’ I felt that I had explained myself online. My concern was that talking about it would make it worse – blowing it up instead of letting it sleep. I got numerous messages from friends and acquaintances who said ‘Good grief, I know what you meant, Pam.’ There were plenty of people who understood what I meant. I didn’t know if by entertaining it, it was going to make it better or make it worse. … It made it worse not to explain things. I do regret that I didn’t follow my instinct and call you.
You’re concerned about students being taught a negative view of our history. How were you taught U.S. history? And how has the way you were taught affected the work you’re doing on the school board?
I actually was taught Civil War history by a lovely woman beloved to me who was from the South. This was in northwestern Kansas in the mid- to late-1970s. I just remember a lot of robust discussions during history class about the Civil War.
She didn’t whitewash history. But she made a great effort to make all of us understand the South, the Confederate view, the motivations of the Confederacy, which was a great gift. She explained the idea of the 10th Amendment and states’ rights. The Constitution grants most rights to the states, and in the instance of slavery, that was the conflict. That kind of tension still exists. Same-sex marriage is another example of the tension between federal unity and states’ rights. Those tensions are things we’re still discussing to this day.