The fight over our own history

A great history course can teach students how to think critically about what they read and hear, to understand the people around them, to appreciate the commonalities that bind us as human beings and the differences that make every society unique and worthy of respect. A great US history course can help students become more engaged in their own communities and the nation as a whole, to understand what is truly good about America and what still needs some work. The problem is, it’s very hard to find a great history course, and when history is taught badly, it’s excruciating. A bad history course is boring, repetitive, focused on rote memorization and millimeter-deep propaganda. It produces students who are bored out of their minds in class, and who, when they leave the class, actually know less than they did going in. Then when they’re confronted with things they should have learned but never did, they get angry, they refuse to acknowledge or engage the new information to which they’ve been exposed, and at the same time they embrace whatever false history, whatever mythology, supports their own already established prejudices. The audience for a book like Joy Masoff’s Our Virginia: Past and Present, which trades in pure myth like “thousands of Southern blacks fought in Confederate ranks,” is made up of people who had bad US history classes in high school. They don’t want to engage with actual historical evidence (in fact they never learned how to engage with it), they just want the myth.

Good history informs and shapes ideas and understanding. Bad history reinforces prejudice. The government of the USSR knew this better than almost anyone, and made sure that high school history courses were more propaganda than fact, meant to instill a shallow sense of national pride in students rather than to inform or engage them.

The recently announced changes to the Advanced Placement US History curriculum offer at least the possibility of a better history course than most high schoolers usually get. Instead of mythologizing the Founding Fathers and learning The Story of American Greatness, 1776-????, the curriculum now puts an emphasis on the condition of women and minorities, on how America’s social values have been formed and changed, on how class and religion and the many wars we’ve fought have interacted with each other to produce one American nation. These are interesting discussions, ones that could really get students interested and really help them to learn, not just memorize, something about American history and about America as it is today. So naturally a bunch of conservative-leaning school boards and lawmakers all over the country are furious. They’d prefer that students learn the myth rather than wrestle with the facts, to “learn” that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were Perfect Men without blemish and that the Civil War was fought over tariffs and states rights only and that America has offered freedom and prosperity to all her people in equal measure at all times.

Not only is that fundamentally propaganda, rather than history, it’s also boring. Isn’t it far more interesting to learn about the flaws those great leaders exhibited, and about the challenges that this nation has struggled and at times fought to overcome? How interesting can it be to “learn” that America Is And Always Has Been Perfect In All Things, The End? Maybe it’s just me, but I’d rather try to make sense of the whole story than to be spoon-fed a story. Thankfully some students, parents, and teachers feel the same way, like these folks in Jefferson County, Colorado, who engaged in civil disobedience (which is one of those aspects of American history that the school board would prefer high schoolers didn’t learn about) in order to express their displeasure at the county school board’s plans to alter the AP curriculum to replace history with mythology.

The fight to make the teaching of history about teaching history is critically important, and it’s encouraging to see that people are fighting back against those who would censor what we teach our high schoolers.


2 thoughts on “The fight over our own history

  1. As it happens, I have been reading Taleb’s The Black Swan – which I absolutely hate, the guy is a simpering egomaniac who can get away with thinking himself really smart because he surrounds himself with stock salesmen – and he has some really nasty things to say about the study of history. As with philosophy and physics and mathematics and a bunch of other fields, everyone is kind of dim witted except for him and a couple of his buddies who get the joke.

    So, anyway, contra Taleb, I really admire history and historians.

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