What is history for?

John Brown

John Brown

When I had fewer years but more hair and acne, I read James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me. Through a collection of essays on the most popular survey texts of American History, Loewen tore apart the conventional way that one learns history in high schools. He turned over rocks that the texts would have you believe didn’t even exist, given their complete silence on the subject. He shed light on the deep rifts in American culture and the profound struggles over how the nation ought to behave, scraping back layers of whitewashing so thick that even a teenager already interested in history had entirely missed them. Given how thoroughly even our most dire struggles get sanitized, this proved quite the revelation.

Loewen argued, so far as I can recall now, that the erasure of genuine conflict and its reduction to something more like a squabble over what to have for lunch created essentially feel-good pablum, mostly for white boys, and nothing at all for anybody else. The resulting product bored almost everybody and came off as a collection of trivia. One teacher I had in high school even called the material as much. That trivia collection suited me just fine, as I’ve long liked trivia, but it does raise the question of why anybody would bother. It has since lost its appeal to me in favor of what I consider a deeper inquiry.

It seems children in Denver don’t care for the trivia collection pablum version of history. They have one up on yours truly at that age. There’s much more, and far more useful things, to take from a history class. Their school board disagreed, insisting that their program should include mostly lies their teachers tell them, presenting

positive aspects of the nation and its heritage. It would establish a committee to regularly review texts and course plans, starting with Advanced Placement history, to make sure materials “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-market system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights” and don’t “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”

In the class I’m taking, Eric Foner described this kind of thing as the hobbit’s view of history. A classmate kindly transcribed his words:

In one of my favorite books of history of a kind, The Fellowship of the Ring by Tolkien, he writes about the hobbits quote “hobbits like to have books filled with things that they already knew set out fair and square with no contradictions.” Of course this is a joke. The hobbits didn’t actually know anything. They knew virtually nothing about the world around them but they were satisfied because they had a familiar view of their own history. People like familiar stories. That’s why the term revisionist historian is a term of abuse out there in the public.

Didn’t Governor Christie the other day accused his critics of being revisionist historians? But to us that’s what we do. That is our job as historians to be revisionist. That is to say, to rethink the past, to think about new perspectives, to add new approaches. That’s what historians are supposed to do. But the point is familiarity is not the measure of the truthfulness of historical accounts.

I understand that the Denver affair seems to have wound down, with the board backing off at least until the journalists look away, but the demand for a hobbit’s history recurs throughout the country. Children should believe, to paraphrase David Blight (who does not support this approach at all, I should add) that America, born perfect, then became more perfect still in a steady, unending march of freedom.

But what if the ultimate test of citizenship for much of the nation’s history hinged on the color of your skin?

What if patriotism has generally meant eagerness to go to war, a zeal to suppress dissent at home and support of filibustering and other piracy abroad?

What if the free market involved company towns that paid company scrip, not real money, which you could only use to shop at the company store? What if the free market involved workers locked in a factory as it burned around them and burned them to death? What if the free market produced bosses who hired the mafia to bust up strikes?

What if authority demanded that the law give some people as property to other people, to sell, beat, rape, work to death, or otherwise use like farm animals? What if that authority got its legitimacy from stolen elections, by force, by elections in which few concerned parties could actually vote?

What if the law required you to help arrest and take back to slavery a person who stole himself or herself away? What if it demanded you speak no word against slavery? What if it treated mere public disagreement with the administration as treason?

Does the end of civil order justify the preservation, even the extension, of those and innumerable other injustices? Many people in the past thought so. Apparently some still do.

If I stood before the Denver school board, perhaps I would need to tell them that I did not invent these hypotheticals myself.

The board’s program speaks volumes. It offers not a word in favor of accuracy, nor complexity, nor nuance. Students would not hear about the costs of the free-market system, only its benefits. They would not hear about abuses of authority. They would hear nothing about the denial of individual rights to, for example, four million slaves, to women, to immigrants, to other racial minorities, to socialists and communists, to union organizers, or any of the other people who haven’t counted according to someone in the past. They would hear that civil order is civic virtue, regardless of its nature, that one should presume every law righteous, and that one should view anybody engaged in protest as suspect and alien, fundamentally illegitimate int heir methods and goals as they tend to disorder and strife.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

The most hated man in America in the 1950s and 1960s had some words about this:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councileror the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”

[…]

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

On its most basic level, the board’s program and those of like-minded individuals across the country aspire to cultivate that negative peace. People should know their place. Facts that reflect poorly on the nation, that undermine patriotism, that require children to consider complicated and diverse points of view, should be denied to them. This way they will not grow up into adults who continue in the habit of asking uncomfortable and inconvenient questions.

History as pablum does worse than not teaching it does. Rather than offering students simple ignorance, it promotes the false impression that one knows what one does not. To teach a good parts only version of history amounts to denying the bad parts exist and so encourages blind repetition of them. If we have always exhibited perfect righteousness in the past, why should we think we’ve suddenly done wrong now? For that matter, if we have such perfect righteousness all down our history then why should we think anything that we, as a nation, have done should cease?

This does mean that history will make people uncomfortable. A fuller telling will raise inconvenient questions. It will not flatter anybody’s ideological preconceptions. Most people of the antislavery movement, people who probably everybody today admires and counts as ideological ancestors, had truly awful attitudes toward black Americans. David Wilmot made it very clear that he didn’t care in the slightest about the welfare of slaves:

I have no squeamish sensitiveness upon the subject of slavery, no morbid sympathy for the slave. I plead the cause and rights of white freemen. I would preserve to free white labor a fair country, a rich inheritance, where the sons of toil, of my own race and own color, can live without the disgrace which association with negro slavery brings upon free labor.

Others considered white racism so insuperable, or black neighbors so undesirable, that they saw no chance of black and white Americans living in peace together. Thus they supported the removal of black Americans back to Africa, no matter how many generations had gone by between their ancestors’ kidnapping and the day of exile. Even antislavery Americans engaged in what we might consider a heroic, direct, sometimes violent struggle against slavery at risk to their own lives don’t come down to us as perfected saints.

John Brown made history before Harper’s Ferry not by attacking a proslavery paramilitary band, but by hauling proslavery civilians out of their house at night and murdering them for their presumed past and future votes against the policy he preferred. He did not with that start the guerrilla war over Kansas, but he pushed it into a new and more violent phase. The same John Brown rescued nearly a dozen slaves and took them safely off to Kansas, a claim desperately few white abolitionists could make.

David Wilmot

David Wilmot

Does John Brown count on the side of positive aspects of American history or the negative? What about David Wilmot? What about Abraham Lincoln, who even during the war tried to get a black American colony going on an island off Haiti? I don’t mean to put all these men on the same level as Jefferson Davis, Robert Lee, or Nathan Bedford Forrest, but I have no doubt that someone could scour up ways that each of the latter led exemplary lives. In Lee’s case, entire books already exist on the subject. Anybody, with sufficient editing, becomes a demon or a saint.

Doing history well and developing a robust understanding of the past, and thus how it has shaped our present, doesn’t come easy. It requires us to confront imperfections in our heroes, blind spots in our ideologies, and the often savage limits of the promises America allegedly made to everyone. Does that make for better citizens? I hope so, but I think it worth doing either way. Life often requires grappling with complex issues long after the classroom passes into memory. Where better to hone those skills than in the study of actual complex issues faced by actual people, often in ways that reverberate down the years to us? You can’t understand the present without some appreciation of how we got here. That requires grappling with complexities, among people we want to make heroes and villains alike, that the Denver board and their like-minded confederates elsewhere seek to prohibit.

Those complexities will lead us all down uncomfortable roads. We may not come out better for it; people do study the past intensely and well and go on to happily repeat its worst horrors. But not making the effort only increases our odds of doing so. If history does not strike the reader as a worthwhile pursuit in itself, then I offer the chance to reduce our odds of doing worse as ample justification for its study all the same.

Advertisements

Your input is welcome

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s