History Friday – An Archive Post on the Uses of History

(From 2006, in response to a then-current story on a local grade school principal cancelling a long-standing tradition of a Thanksgiving tableau enacted by the small children dressing as Pilgrims and Indians. The link to the original story is long-decayed, but in light of this particular blast, and this one from the eternally plastic Cher … well, still relevant.)

Reader Mark Rosenbaum commented on one of my historical pieces this week: “Why couldn’t they tell history this well when I was in school a half century ago?” About that same time, I ran across this story—part of the run-up to the Thanksgiving holiday. Perhaps it might, in a small way, explain why people are not so enamored of history these days – at least, the sort of history taught in schools.

I can only assume that we are supposed to marvel at Mr. Morgan’s method of teaching, and his grim gray multi-culti sensitivity, in pounding it in relentlessly to a class of grade-schoolers that we actual or spiritual descendants of Pilgrims are “Bad, Bad People, Who Stole Everything From the Indians, and Celebrating Thanksgiving is Just As Bad as the Holocaust, Almost!” Myself, I think “Jeeze, what a dick-head!” Talk about sucking all the joy out of the room! Seriously, teachers like this was one of the reasons I gave a miss to teaching myself; and the reason for private school looking better and better when it came to Blondie. For one, the School Sisters of St. Francis did not conflate the Plymouth Colony in its shaky first years with three hundred years of savage conflict. Dumping on the poor Pilgrims for the Indian Wars seems to be a bit of a fallacy, as well as grandly oversimplifying history — not to mention the fact that the Indians warred on each other with keen enjoyment and no little inventive brutality for centuries. At the very least, Mr. Morgan is a dickhead for ruining the innocent joy of children in what appears to have been a fond ritual. Having the kids dress up like Pilgrims and Indians and commemorating a peaceful feast together – dear, can’t have that, can we? It’s just too simple!

History for children ought to be simplified, but dumping a metaphorical turd in the punchbowl like that may not be the most effective way to begin teaching the nuances of it all.

Because you have to begin with teaching the history, then bring in the nuances and the highlights, as well as the lowlights, the grand stories, and events. We need our heroes, we have to know what people did, how they behaved, and why. Its almost a primal urge – why do we still read the Iliad, of Beowulf and King Arthur, of Shakespeare’s kings and nobles, and Civil War generals. We need the stories of people, almost as much as we need oxygen, water, sustenance. We are driven to accounts of glorious deeds as much as of the ignoble, of disasters and adversity, wanting examples of how well, or how badly people behave in adversity, wanting to pattern our own selves against those who stood as pillars of integrity in bad times, and shining heroes in the good times. If we do not know how people in the past could survive, endure, and persevere – than how can we hope for ourselves? We would be alone, without a map, without an idea, and without hope. It would be a sort of intellectual sensory-deprivation tank, to be cut off from the past. Mr. Morgan’s chief offense, I fear, is that with the best intentions in the world, he is subtly discouraging kids from looking at history. Besides the permanently apologetic and masochistic, who truly wants to be ashamed of their ancestors, and where they came from? Yes, Mr. Morgan, about the paving material used on the approach to the underworld?

There is a theory that all this rubbishing of our heroes and heroines, and the events in our national saga being constantly painted as sordid, vile, an epic of treachery and double-dealing from the very beginning has a deliberate propose; an elaborate Marxist-Gramscian plot to render us spiritless, compliant to the leadership of some vaguely socialist cabal. It might very well be so; but tools like Mr. Morgan and his ilk may have overplayed their hand, because in spite of their tireless labors in the classroom and the upper reaches of academia and intelligentsia, people are still drawn to history on their own: to their own family memoirs, to amateur history circles, and to re-enactor groups of everything from mountain-man rendezvous and black-power shooting, to Civil War and Revolutionary battles, to reconstructing lifestyles and vintage clothing, and a hundred other ways of reaching out and touching the past. We cannot help ourselves, it’s an imperative; we must understand the present, and perhaps find a path through the future – in spite of educational apparatchiks like Mr. Morgan and his grim little exercise in political correctitude.

Wouldn’t it have been much more nuanced, do you think, to emphasize that on that long ago Thanksgiving, two very different peoples, whose descendants would be at each others throats for three hundred years, were yet able to join together for a great feast, to be courteous and friendly with each other, for at least a little while? Next month, I suppose Mr. Morgan will follow up by telling the kiddies that Santa Claus is an invention of the mercantile-industrial establishment.

16 thoughts on “History Friday – An Archive Post on the Uses of History”

  1. “Perhaps it might, in a small way, explain why people are not so enamored of history”

    I think in these chaotic times people are trying to get their bearings. They’re looking to their past, partly out of nostalgia, but also to understand their foundations and heritage. I think people are passing around history for the same reason Lex and Mr Hannan wrote their books. It’s a sort of samizdat, a counter narrative to the Marxist, multicultural propaganda that our society is currently awash in.

  2. I think among the public schools, history and math are the most poorly taught of all subjects.

    In the case of history – names and dates.

    That is all the mediocre teachers expect students to learn. And mediocrity abounds.

    Small wonder students for the most part hate history classes.

    For me, history finally came to life with a seemingly arcane class at the University of Virginia.

    The subject?

    Diplomatic history.

    Seemingly the most boring subject of a boring subject – the study of treaties.

    But the Professor, Norman Graebner, brought the times to life. He would discuss the economic pressures, the personalities, and by the time he got to the actual treaty you knew it was just a logical outcome to the economic conditions and personalities.

    At the start of the semester and signup, he would be assigned a normal 40 capacity classroom. But so many people wanted it – and he turned nobody away – he always ended up in the auditorium.

    He made me realize that history is a wonderful fascinating process – a roadmap – that shows us how we got here from there.

  3. Mostly Mr Ford was right. Certainly the popular account of American history with which the population is indoctrinated, with its generous supply of demigods, is bunk. And the argument of necessity is rubbish. In my Scottish primary school we learned about Robert the Bruce, our great national hero. In his rise to power he murdered an opponent, “The Red Comyn”, in the Greyfriars Kirk in Dumfries. There was no beating about the bush: it was murder. In a rather implausible detail of the story, one of Bruce’s men was even represented as saying “I’ll mak siccar” meaning that he’d return to the church and ensure that Comyn was dead. The whole thing was colourful enough to stick in my mind for six decades.

    Why are Americans assumed to be incapable of being grown up enough to be told the corresponding facts about their history? Must they inhabit a perpetual saccharin childhood?

  4. Alas, Dearieme, the trouble with American history in schools is that the pendulum has swung all the way to the other side. There’s no ‘perpetual saccharine childhood’ with regard to American history as is taught – and has been taught for at least the last two decades. It’s become one unrelieved slog through Zinn-land (with occasional exceptions as Bill noted); nothing honorable, redeeming, or remotely heroic. It’s all racism, death and dirty-dealing, topped with lots of sweet creamy dollops of political correctness and the cherry of presentism on top. (And in this particular case, regarding the Indian wars, never a word about how the various tribes vigorously warred on each other, and occasionally sought to recruit various European or American groups as allies against their traditional enemy – and now and again were themselves used by European powers against American settlers…)

    If an adult coldly and with calculation set about to undermine a child’s self-image and confidence, telling them at every turn that they were wicked, intolerant and evil and the worst of the worst – that kind of adult could be charged with inflicting emotional abuse on that child. So what is it called when scholarly authority figures administer that kind of undermining in an academic setting … to a generation or two of students?

    Michael is correct in that people look to history to get their bearings, especially in hard times. Perhaps we are, as interested amateurs (in the old sense of one who does it for love of subject) passing around our own samizdat with our books.

  5. One suggestion I would make is to use textbooks from the 1930s, before the current trend of politicization took over. When I was in the 8th grade, I found my cousin’s World History book from High School (graduated 1936). It began with the Doric invasion and the Punic Wars before it ever got to European history as we usually think of it. I moved to California to school and lost track of the book. I wish I could find it.

  6. “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

    How on earth do you justify liberal democracy (British sense of “liberal”) otherwise? Then you must give the children examples, preferably from your own history. You surely can’t imagine that little English children are taught that Henry VIII was a flawless fellow, or Oliver Cromwell? Mind you, you are not alone. The French Republic also believes in history as indoctrination. For years Simon Schama’s fine history of the Revolution, “Citizens”, could find no publisher in France.

  7. Perspective, Dearieme – how about a little perspective? And maybe a little bit of telling history right down the middle, in a more or less non-judgmental fashion. Is that too much to ask? I have no idea what English children are taught in school these days, but I do have a damned good notion of what American children are being taught – when they are being taught at all – and it is pretty much Zinnist propaganda in various strengths and flavors. Our students of any age are not being well-served by the current educational establishment. And whether this is a deliberate strategy or not is a matter for another discussion entirely.

  8. I have been enamored with the history of all kinds of topics since high school, when I was fortunate to have an American history course using a very fine college-level text and a terrific teacher. I still read history, when it is well written, like a fine novel, and enjoy it every bit as much.

    I have read my children’s history books as they went through school, and they were generally poorly written and dumbed down, with pages of illustrations and other white space accompanying text that was very childishly written.

    Since I always emphasized reading as they grew up, they were able to read other history books that I recommended which had a higher quality of writing, and which covered more complex subjects.

    The general problem with history as it is taught today is the complete capture of the subject by race, sex, gender activists within academia, and the perversion of historical research and ethics by Marxists and their deconstructionist allies.

    The history association that is supposed to oversee the teaching of history and the researches that teaching is founded upon has openly declared its hostility to western culture and values, and its relentless advocacy of negative evaluations in all things regarding the US is openly and strongly asserted.

    Fortunately, there are some very good historical writers out there who reject the “zinnification” of our history, and, given the opaque unreadability of the academics in general, are much more interesting to read as well as more balanced and informative.

    Part of the reason much of our current culture seems adrift and obsessed with trivial fads and celebrities is the simple fact that the last few generations have been cut off from their historical context and inheritance.

    Children are hungry for knowledge, and search for answers to all the age old questions, whether they can articulate that desire or not. The travesty that our educational system has become in all areas, but especially in providing them a coherent historical context from which to evaluate the state of their lives and culture, will have powerful negative consequences for a long time to come.

  9. I’m not recommending that you simply take the sappy old history textbooks and teach just the opposite, though it’s an interesting question whether it would be any less accurate. It’s a legit question: after all, teaching the opposite of what the NYT preaches would greatly improve accurate understanding, would it not?

    I once had a quick scan of a Zinn book in a book sale: it looked like tedious submarxist claptrap to me.

  10. The opposite of what the NYT preaches would be a very good start… ;-)

    Seriously, history is complicated, because it’s people, and people are complicated … and they deserve better than being reduced to ‘tedious submarxist claptrap’. And students deserve better than what they have been getting.

    I had read (can’t recall where, but on this blog or maybe Insty … and it may be anecdotal which is not evidence, save that what other parents have been telling me tracks with it …) that all that contemporary high school students knew of WWII was that we had dropped the atom bomb on Japan, and that we had interned Japanese citizens. Not much else, really. One really wonders if there is a conspiracy to keep them bored and/or ignorant.

    That also may be why the other history posts on this blog are so popular. People do want to know…

  11. Harry Truman was an autodidact in history. He did not attend a college, except briefly a “business college.” He was very deeply educated on Roman history, among other subjects. Colleges should provide a basic education in history and they did in the 1950s when I was a student. My older son attended USC in the 1980s and took a course in Athenian democracy. I wonder if that is still offered ?

    My youngest daughter’s time at U of Arizona showed how bad history education has gotten. She was taught things that aren’t true. For example, she was taught that the “Silent Majority” of the 60s was made up, not of supporters of the Vietnam War, but as “white people who did not accept the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

    She was also taught that the Plains Indians, hunter gatherers, taught the settlers how to farm.

    Her older brother, not a reader as a student, is now another auto-didact. I hope she follows suit. She majored in French, which I still think is a better major than some social studies spinoff.

    She took one course that had as its only textbook, a book on “Whiteness Studies.”

  12. “History” is rarely factual; rather it’s an interpretation of events, subject to the perceptions and, consciously or unconsciously, the desires of the teller. The previously cited death of “The Red Comyn” is no exception.
    “It is impossible to know what really happened in Greyfriars Kirk that day. Chroniclers disagree and for hundreds of years historians have argued about what took place and why.”

    There are varying interpretations, often diametrically opposed, of almost every major (and minor, for that matter) historical event. We as a society can’t even agree about what happened last week, let alone hundreds or thousands of years ago. However, what a nation or a people DECIDES to believe about itself is of supreme importance. People in general used to believe that the US (or “The West” if you like) was a force for good in the world. There obviously seems to me to be a concerted effort on the part of the left to change that.

  13. History is factual; it is the telling of it that varies according to the bias of the teller. Homer told of the walls of Troy, no doubt with some embellishment. Heinrich Schliemann was considered a credulous fool until he began to uncover the ruins of Troy. Arthur Evans believed Schliemann and, after he died, began the discovery of Knossos and the Minoan civilization.

    Joel Moykyr writes clear discussions of the middle ages and their economy, explaining how things worked and why many of our impressions have been distorted by the bias of prior writers. The facts are the facts.

  14. Unfortunately, almost everything is colored by the perceptions, preconceptions and biases of the people involved. eye witnesses are notoriously unreliable. This is the problem that many people have with the “soft sciences”, and what makes it so very difficult to unreservedly believe historical accounts. I was a history major in college (in the early 60’s) with a concentration is early American history. Many of the things that I learned as “fact” have been “revised” considerably (several times in some cases) and the revisions presented as “fact”.

    As an aside…..One of the more interesting books that I’ve ever read is “1491” (“1493” is also very good). It takes most things that you think you know about the history of the “New World” and convincingly stands them on their head. Anyone who hasn’t read it should do so.

  15. ….The facts are the facts.

    Quite true but the interpretation of those facts is up to the victors. Which facts are to be included and which facts eityher ignored or not emphasized.

    Pearl Harbor was presented as simply a sneak attack by the Japanese against an innocent America.

    But had the Japanese won history would have been written that once Roosevelt cut off their oil supplies, the attack was necessary or the country would have starved.

    While the facts are the facts, how certain facts are accentuated depends on who is interpreting them.

    Then too in the case of the school textbooks these days, they are being written by people who want to see and believe one small subset to the exclusion of everything else.

  16. “Quite true but the interpretation of those facts is up to the victors.” Not always. The Vikings were the victors but the monks wrote the histories.

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