Perla Cassayre Thulin: We suffer for the things we didn’t learn in high school

In a photo provided by U.S. National Library of Medicine, misinformation in newspapers and government censors helped the flu spread in 1918. The “Spanish flu” pandemic, the subject of a new, ongoing exhibit at the Mütter Museum, killed tens of millions of people worldwide. (U.S. National Library of Medicine via The New York) -- EDITORIAL USE ONLY --

“No nation is permitted to live in ignorance with impunity.”

— Thomas Jefferson 1821

As a physician and citizen, I have observed with amazement and horror the blatant disregard for science and medical principles in the politicized battle over masks, sheltering and social distancing. The cold facts of over 165,000 deaths and 30 million unemployed unambiguously stamp America’s response to COVID-19 a national failure and humanitarian catastrophe.

Similarly, the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests make apparent a tragic national failure in achieving racial equality and justice.

Unless one chooses to callously disregard the health and safety of our citizens, a major reason why people resist health safety measures like wearing a mask, or can’t “see” the racial inequities around us, may be the lack of an adequate mandatory high school curriculum in human biology and unvarnished American history.

Our children can graduate from high school having passed biology, chemistry and physics, without ever having studied human physiology, health maintenance, and illness — perhaps the most vital curriculum they need to survive. They don’t learn about viruses, the immune system or about the limits on the ability of physicians to help those who are ill.

In a pandemic with respiratory transmission of an airborne and contact spread virus, it should be understood by all that masks and social distancing are essential to protect ourselves and each other, and hand washing is required. This was understood during the 1918 “Spanish flu,” and photos of students and citizens wearing masks are easily available. (Although there were protestors then too, and some were fined or jailed.)

Currently, Utah high school students are blithely gathering without distancing or masking. Their parents, who have graduated from high school, often do the same. A human biology curriculum should be required before high school graduation, so that never again will our population be so ill-informed that they would view mask-wearing as a political statement instead of a vital health measure, and our children will be better prepared to meet the health challenges of the future.

Similarly, a better understanding of American history and racial injustice is crucial to our forming a more equitable society. Learning about the traumatic history of slavery, its apologists who try to glamorize the Confederacy, voter suppression of people of color, the struggles for civil rights and ongoing inequities is essential to understanding the Black Lives Matter movement now. A high school U.S. history curriculum that delves into these issues and does not “whitewash” the past is critical to the formation of a more racially just citizenry and will benefit all of us.

Thomas Jefferson prized education and science, and knew that slavery was wrong — but was too weak and racist to challenge it. But certain things he got right: A free republic will not flourish unless the populace is educated.

Let’s educate our children for the sake of their future, and insist on changes in our high school required curriculum. Preserve our nation from the damages wrought by ignorance.

“If the children are untaught, their ignorance and vices will in future life cost us much dearer in their consequences than it would have done in their correction by a good education.” — Thomas Jefferson 1818

“Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” — Thomas Jefferson, 1789

Perla Cassayre Thulin, M.D.

Perla Cassayre Thulin, M.D., is a neurologist at the University of Utah specializing in movement disorders.