When I was in school my favorite subject was always history. In my youth (which is tragically not so very long ago) ‘social studies’ courses encompassed far more than the bland highlight reels and moral revisionism that passes for studying trends of the past today. Oh, sure, there was some genuine outrage over many of the crimes throughout human history, all the slavery and genocides that have developed society into what it will still become tomorrow. But there were also sub-sections, units on civics, ethics, and efforts to help students understand what it means to be both a citizen of their nation, and a patriot (or a traitor, if that is your inclination). The point is that today the only things children are allowed to learn about are censored horrors, those sugar-coated, hideous moments that percolate the nightmares of our collective past, briefly highlighting the heroics of an ever-changing vanguard of icons.
This is going to be another comment on those days way back when, when I was still a high school teacher. I loved performing my job, but hated the actual profession. As an English teacher I quickly came to realize, even during my first days in what was then my second career, that I could teach anything. No subjects were limited. One day might be a discussion of Animal Farm or The Crucible, another about the French Revolution, or contemporary scandals from a sociological perspective, or religion and race–whatever was at that moment in the news. And since everything was possible in my classroom (I taught Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses to a class more than half Muslum), subjects sometimes ranged as far between theoretical physics and Japanese tentacle porn.
But history was my passion. I realized that these kids had no interest in anything that happened before their birth, it not being relevant to their lives, other than, perhaps, the personal stories of celebrities they admired. (One student of mine bragged to me that Jay-Z dropped out of school, and “look how well he’s doing, married to Beyonce and all. I responded by asking him if he has any idea what Jay-Z did with his days? After a moment of baffled silence I added, “All he does is work. In the studio, writing lyrics, mixing the sounds and making business deals. You? I have never known you to work hard at anything.”) Every coming generation tends to discount their elder’s experiences. This is one of the causes of the social confusion over people of the past tolerating unfairness and prejudice that makes no sense to the children of today. Since context has no meaning for them, reality is disregarded, and life takes on a tone of perpetually resounding present-tense.
Another problem is, of course, just how boring the approved lessons are, highlighting a handful of things that are assumed to be relevant to the modern world. But it is merely a slideshow, consisting of a few limited lessons.
American History: Being American, I suppose this disgrace is foremost in my mind. US History is constantly revised, year after year, as certain social issues take over public consciousness. For example, the racism of the early days of the nation–the disgrace of slavery, and the cruelty of the failed Reconstruction, are certainly very important topics to study. But they have been so whitewashed (an intentionally bad pun) that only a few things are capable of squeaking out. Slavery is Bad. The Confederate Flag is racist (as opposed to the symbol of millions of traitors to their nation, believing so savagely in the racial divide that they went to war over it).
Lincoln was the Great Liberator, yes, but he was racist too, so we need to keep that in mind when celebrating him, say the academically outraged. Slaves who led rebellions or escaped to freedom are, 100%, flawless heroes. It does not matter if any of them fell from the high tower of dignity and grace. Wouldn’t you, you are asked? Wouldn’t you kill as many people as possible if you were a slave? But since the idea of slavery itself is painted in such glaring shades of black and white, it is almost impossible to separate the issue from your own innate repulsion.
All of American History comes across in the same skeptical light. The founding fathers are nowadays just a bunch of racist white men who did everything they did only for themselves, and their rich ruling class (perhaps also influenced by secret societies and space aliens?) Is there any truth to these claims? Of course there is (parenthetically, no). But is that all that was accomplished at the dawn of the United States, freedom from British white men in order to become white men of a different race? This puts limitations not just on the value of the past, but on the very idea of freedom. America was meant, in its early days, to be a beacon of hope, the very light of the world. It was a slow-moving experiment with a new form of government, and, as with everything, many people are left behind through no fault of their own (while for many more, it is almost entirely their own fault). But it is both the imposition of right-wing and left-wing ideologies on our understanding of the past that, today, has completely undermined it. What has been formed, as with everything else, is a set of conflicting opinions about wars over conflicting opinions. Look at this:
Both of these pictures are from the 1920s, already displaying a conflicting memory of the nature of the war to end slavery. And while no doubt the first picture is an exaggeration of nobility, and the second is pure racist caricature, the notion of who the people of the North were cannot be any more stark as represented in these images. Today things have only gotten worse:
We can argue both the truth and falsehood of any of these pictures, ultimately because history no longer matters to people. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison are more remembered today for being slave-owners. Certainly it was just as wrong in those days as at any time, keeping another person as property, but there is the side of context to consider. This is in no way a justification for slavery. However, without slaves, would there be such a thing as America? In many ways the slaves’ contribution to the building of America outweighs the political doctrines of a gang of rich plantation owners tired of paying taxes to a far away land. Slaves actually did the hard work. There is no reason not to celebrate the contributions of these people. But racists today resent them for their freedom, for their not having to bow down and listen to everything the white man (and woman) has to say. Somehow they see this as the destruction of America, and not the fulfillment of its original dream.
Social problems, those issues that offend people for conflicting reasons, have replaced a raw consideration of facts. When discussing the history of slavery, it is impossible not to hear the deeper story, including the flaws of radicals of every stripe and shade, if we wish to understand race in America, or anyplace else in the world. We must also get rid of the notion of the purity of the past, that all people on one side were good, and the rest exclusively evil. This is not a repeat of President Trump’s absurd statement that there were “good people on both sides” of a specifically racist rally. It is directed at both Northerners who only aee nobility in themselves, or the Southerner, who mourns a once upon a time forgotten way of life, arguing that slave owners treated blacks better than those who set them free.
Nat Turner, leader of one of the more famous slave rebellions, has been transformed into a hero. But this man, while fighting for a righteous cause, allowed ideas of vengeance to triumph over the necessity of liberation. He turned away from the brutal rapes and murders of helpless women and children, even encouraging such violence to get back at the devils for shaming them. We can certainly understand such an urge. I have no doubt people today can offer heartfelt justifications. This does not change the fact that small children were violated and killed (not always in that order) by people not fighting for freedom, but behaving like prison inmates during a riot.
All history rots generation after generation. The reason that students have no interest is because of how nervous those who develop the curriculum have become. They are terrified they might offend someone. They fear the wrath of an irrational parent, with a hotline to a law firm. We can no longer teach The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in most schools because of perceptions of racial animus. The word ‘nigger’ is used over and over again. And yet, were we to get past an emotional response to this horrible word, we can discover the sweet yet tragic story of two children running away not just to hopes of freedom, but from the oppression of everything they have ever known. Mark Twain’s masterpiece is about the common humanity between people. In fact, there are really only two human beings in the story, Huck and Jim, while everyone else they encounter are either virulent racists, violent drunks, fools, con artists, and cruel monsters, like Huck’s father and Tom Sawyer. And yet the opportunity to teach these lessons is suppressed for superficial reasons, because superficial language has taken over the importance of learning or understanding a far more profound lesson.
World History: It used to be illegal to teach about the atrocious past of Germany in Germany. Nazis were suppressed, a black mark on what is presumed to be an otherwise glorious history. Sure, Hitler was evil, but Beethoven was German too! Why can’t we remember him, forget about those disgraceful racists? Here, let’s put into place a law making it illegal to display a swastika, no matter the context. Want to learn about Nazi propaganda tactics, and the reasons they employed certain symbols? Do it without those symbols, we are told. Of all the horrible events that have occurred everywhere in the world, these are the issues people most want to forget. Learning from our mistakes seems to be a notion of the past. French capitulation to the Nazis? Let’s not talk about that, or deny it ever happened. We were all a part of the resistance! What about Armenian genocide in Turkey? How dare you! It never happened! Those millions of people who were slaughtered never existed! We can pick apart any nation in the world, and learn all about the terrible things they have inflicted upon the world. No place is clean, or innocent. Vatican City has been led, throughout history, at times by some of the most malicious people who ever lived. All throughout Africa and Middle-Eastern Asia we can learn about barbaric strongmen who treated everyone like slaves, sometimes selling off the one’s they did not kill, who had given them the most trouble.
England we need not mention, even on their own founding Island, having treated the Scottish and the Irish with such profound contempt (I do not believe they have ever much cared about the Welsh, living in a scruffy wasteland as they do, and remaining mostly calm in the face of worldwide calamity). Italy . . .Greece . . .Russia. . . hell, Australia–Canada!–has been filled with more crimes than heroics. Everyplace has much more to be ashamed of than glory in. But the teaching of history tends to limit itself to either hero worship, or outright denunciation. I never did that to my students. In my lessons there were no real heroes, and only a handful of actual villains. Everyone else was either scared, or a victim, or stupid, or maybe they simply did not care about the world falling apart around them. Some people had noble intentions that were usually thwarted. Most things end in partial failure.
I did a unit on genocide one year. I had one of those computerized screens in place of an old fashioned white board or chalk board. Every day I would post a different horrific picture of the consequences of such actions on people that we mostly do not think about. This was meant to shock them (at least some of them) into the seriousness of some of the actions taken all around the world. And for those pretend tough guys, laughing about how bad-ass they believed their ‘crew’ was, and how they would just go “Pop-pop-pop!” at some little Arab kid trying to blow them up, I shook my head with pity. When I told them that most of those children had been trained both to hate, and to kill since they were impossibly young, it didn’t hit home. When I said that those children had a much better instinct for killing than any of the boastful punks they knew (even if they had been guilty of violent crimes), and that true belief triumphs over survival with such blindly devoted soldiers, the kids would talk about how many kills they had on a video game. And so I had to rely on pictures to tell the story for me:
This did not even consider World War II, or the eradication of Native Americans and Jews throughout history (I figured they might get something out of their history classes if I lit such a fire in their soul.) I would give them dark realities and truths, the sort of thing that parents and school districts try to cover up. The very things that are most interesting about how we got to where we are today, and what we can do about it.
©2019, 2020 Lance Polin