My ignorance is a blister on my soul right now. Did I grow up the cog of some fascist state? It’s starting to feel like it. Woodrow Wilson an unapologetic racist? Mythologized Betsy Ross, the woman who can’t credibly be proven to have sown the first American flag, if there even was a first American flag? Christopher Columbus, not only not the first person to “discover” the Americas (this I knew), but merely one of many seafarers motivated by the greed of his time to sail the ocean blue, his exploitation and subjugation of a “new world” rationalized and, per his belief system, justified by his religious faith? But this isn’t how most Americans remember these icons of American history.
For the sake of future generations of Americans, I hope our history textbooks and history teachers are doing a better job of presenting HISTORY! than those of my childhood. I feel I have been hoodwinked by the American educational system when it comes to our history as taught in elementary, middle and high school. Not only have textbook publishers and history teachers omitted much of our history from their pages and classrooms (for the sake of what? Sparing us a full and fully factual account of our history? Sparing us the darker sides of our history? Sparing us inconvenient truths? Sparing us controversial figures and periods? Sparing us from having to think for ourselves?), but, as concerns the history they do bother to convey, they give us only half-truths, perfect heroes lionized still today, history in a vacuum, a torso of “facts” with its limbs amputated…for our own good.
What, you might ask, am I going on about? I’ll tell you. This morning I paid a little visit to my local library. I had in mind to check out a few books on different subjects–Israel, poetry by Walt Whitman, Michael Crichton’s science fiction novel, “The Andromeda Stain.” I never made it past the lobby as the library had put out several shelves of books for sale. There was a decent selection, not just celeb cookbooks and dusty tomes by obscure writers. So instead of checking out books for free, we left the library $23 lighter and eight books heavier. One of my book purchases was titled “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.” I thought it would be a fun read.
I was wrong. There isn’t anything “fun” in discovering that this country’s education system as it existed when I was growing up helped me to deliberately mislearn (is that a word?) and therefore misremember my own history; that generations before me had also mislearned and now misremember their own history–if all the history they learned came from K-12 grade–and that, unless something has drastically changed since the publishing of books and critiques like the one I’m currently reading–here’s hoping since this was published in 1995–successive generations are still mislearning and misremembering their own history. So whilst I sat in my social studies and American history classes year after year committing factoids to memory about America’s “isolationist” foreign policy prior to the first world war–something I do in fact remember well (and wrongly as it turns out to be)–and Helen Keller’s triumph over her disability, I wasn’t so much learning as being indoctrinated.
Because apparently Americans need not bother learning about the very much non-isolationist, indeed interventionist, policies of President Woodrow Wilson in the time before WWI, policies that led to our landing troops in and intervening in the affairs of countries across Latin America and even Russia, actions that to this day have repercussions and I warrant are not so easily forgotten by the history books of those countries. Because apparently we’re allowed to remember Wilson as a progressive and the leader who guided us through the first world war, but we’re not allowed to learn that he was unabashedly racist, instituting policies that segregated the federal workplace and restricted access for African-Americans to federal posts–actions that actually reversed decades of progress made by African-Americans in participating in their government and in society since the end of the Civil War. Apparently we need not know that he sympathized with the Ku Klux Klan and was likely a contributing factor in their resurrection in the 1900s, and that he is quoted as telling black protesters that “segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen.” The message seems clear to me: Americans are weak-minded and thus unable to handle these kinds of truths–and controversies–about their own historical figures.
Because apparently we’re allowed to remember Helen Keller as the deaf, blind girl who overcame her disability, but it’s not important to learn of the woman she became–a political activist, a radical socialist, an anti-capitalist, a champion of worker’s and women’s rights, a lecturer, a writer, a traveler, a co-founder of the ACLU, a supporter of birth control, and much more. The message from our textbooks is clear: Americans want their heroes and heroines to be squeaky clean, infallible, ideal. We “need” heroines like Helen Keller to be forever imprisoned in their mute childhood because we ourselves prefer to remain muted and imprisoned by our own childish beliefs and myths. How much more interesting is Helen Keller the person as opposed to simply Helen Keller the deaf, blind girl who learned to communicate with the world? And when she began communicating with the world, how much more it turns out she had to say.
I’m very nearly angry and I’m only into the third chapter. I realize (1) this is one book, and (2) writing about history can be, and sometimes needs to be for the sake of space, a selective process. But I’ve read books on our history since leaving school and feel that the writers and publishers of American history textbooks ought to feel ashamed of the way they’ve presented history to the American public for so many generations, as though our “special” history was shaped in a vacuum– the American people, as one, pulling themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps, overcoming all odds, achieving the unthinkable on our own and with no reference to or help from the civilizations that came before and have always existed alongside us. We imagine ourselves a bright light in a dark world, a beacon of hope. Nevermind the thousands of bright lights our government, our capitalist barons, our belief in manifest destiny tried to extinguish along the way, bright lights whose stories–some of them–are thankfully well-recorded though shamefully censored by many of our textbooks. (I cannot entirely fault teachers, in the limited time they have available to them–and until we have a better system in place–for teaching what history has been made available to them and upon which they know their students will be tested. And who could fault them for assuming that the history as presented in our textbooks is the whole truth and nothing but the truth? That said, I would encourage American history teachers everywhere, especially in middle and high schools, if they suspect their textbooks to be of the ilk that convey mostly or only the noble, exaggerated, inspirational, sensational half-truths about our country’s history, to go beyond the sanctioned textbooks whenever and wherever possible and augment their students’ education with other materials, so long as they are historically accurate, thus bestowing unto them a more robust education about their national history.)
As a side note, I’ve also noticed we as Americans and perhaps more broadly as humans are just as selective in remembering and retelling our own personal histories as we are in remembering and retelling our national histories. But that is a subject for another time.
I’ve said it before and I’ll repeat it here. There’s nothing wrong in being proud of your national heritage and in believing, hoping, that the “good” aspects of that heritage may have positively impacted the world at large and may be recorded as having contributed something uplifting and positive to the annals of man and womankind. But this learning and remembering the good should not come at the expense of conveniently forgetting the bad and the ugly, of disowning the hard-to-swallow and tough-to-stomach truths that your country (in its infancy and still today) has also negatively impacted millions of unseen and ill-forgotten people throughout its history–people of this land and of other lands. What’s that cliché about those who fail to remember the mistakes of their past are doomed to repeat them in the future? Something of that nature. I also like the quotes included in the book I’m reading now, including this one by James Baldwin:
“What passes for identity in America is a series of myths about one’s heroic ancestors.”
And this one by W.E.B. Du Bois:
“One is astonished in the study of history at the recurrence of the idea that evil must be forgotten, distorted, skimmed over. We must not remember that Daniel Webster got drunk but only remember he was a splendid constitutional lawyer. We must forget that George Washington was a slave owner…and simply remember the things we regard as creditable and inspiring. The difficulty, of course, with this philosophy is that history loses its value as an incentive and example; it paints perfect men and noble nations, but it does not tell the truth.”
The wonderful thing is that, beyond the classroom, there are fantastic books that explore every dark and light chapter in our history, based on thorough historical research and often well-written and laudably readable and interesting for the layperson. If we reach for books on the shelf now with the desire to relearn our own history–and the history of other cultures and countries and time periods before “the great American experiment”–we shan’t be disappointed by the delectable selection our historians have provided for us. Indeed, the first book I remember reading that finally fomented in me an appreciation for American history–and convinced me that American history was a great deal more interesting than that which I learned in school–was Joseph Ellis’s “Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation.” It was in this book that I understood for the first time how fragile early America was; that the American experiment was far from a sure success; that its founding fathers often disagreed, sometimes bitterly, and squabbled, often venomously, about the direction of the country; and how many of those lionized fathers sacrificed through compromise in order to keep this feeble new country intact.
So, if I have any message in this post to other Americans out there it is this: It’s never too late to reach for a book, or several, and relearn your history. I promise it’s much more interesting and diverse and full of so many more fascinating characters, good and bad, than your high school history textbooks would lead you to believe. And please, don’t just reach for those books that you know will reinforce your own myths about our country and our people. Reach for a variety and with an open-mind. (Our minds have been closed for too long.) I can’t promise it’ll be “fun” to unlearn some of the things you have for so long believed to be true about our country and to relearn things that were mistaught, but it will surely be interesting, maybe even liberating. And you and I will be better Americans for it.
So go on and pop that blister of ignorance. It only hurts for a second.