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Misremembering: The Failure to Teach History in America

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I love history, specifically American history. The blame is quite simple; a summer trip for a six year old to the battlefield at Shiloh, Tennessee, in the late 1960's. I came home wearing a blue kepi and a carrying a toy musket. I was bitten by the bug of history, and have never really lost my love for all things old and forgotten.

Like many of you, I grew up in public schools. There were the truly great history teachers -- the ones who majored in history in college, had stunningly large private book collections, and deeply cared that their students understood the patterns and meanings in the human past. Then there were the social science majors who were dragooned into teaching history; not bad people, but not historians. Their natural bent was more toward cultures, groups and, as Teddy Roosevelt called them "hyphenated Americans." Again, no problem there either; we all learned that the story of America is not the Jamestown-to-the-Moon process that had dominated the teaching of American history for decades. Lastly, and God love em, you had the coaches and shop teachers who had to 'teach a real class' in addition to everything else they had to do. Decent folks but lacking depth of knowledge past the teacher's guide. They had to work harder on their own just to prepare for class; some of them hadn't touched a history book since undergrad World Civ.

History, unlike math and the sciences, is loaded with political and cultural meaning. Chemistry is chemistry -- the rules are globally recognized. History, however, isn't. The history taught in North Korea is substantially different than that of South Korea; South Korean history is taught differently than that of Japan, and so on.

In the United States, the issue is becoming one of history being taught differently in Texas than in Maine, and interpreted differently in Virginia than in Ohio. And it is becoming a political tool for polarized pundits to undermine the very liberties and traditions is supposedly upholds. In Texas, the Confederacy is being taught as the social, political and moral equal of the Union, when in fact it was none of those things. Texans themselves -- including Governor (and former President of the Texas Republic) Sam Houston -- were driven from office by slaveholders and secessionists. The minorities in Texas -- such as the German immigrants of eastern and northern Texas, as well as the free black, Native Americans and Hispanic residents -- were terrorized by Confederate government officials, draft officers and others. And yes, for those who will say "ah, but what about the x number of [insert small minority name here] who were in the Confederate army?" and so on to undercut the point. I will say to you -- what about the massacre of supposed 'abolitionist' German immigrants in 1862 and 1863, with dozens killed by crazed mobs, and at least nineteen hanged by the Confederates?

The Texas Board of Education, dominated by right-wing ideologues, instead of teaching their students about the actual facts of history, will instead dupe them into believing a myth epic in proportions. Confederates are equal to the loyal Unionists. The Founding Fathers were basically modern Evangelicals, instead of the Anglicans and Deists they actually were. That (and I just have to quote it from that great historical recreation of the American West, Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles) Texas, and by extension the United States, was built by the "white, God fearing citizens" of European descent. I wonder if their recreated history will even discuss the fate of native tribes along the Texas border. Or of the slave aristocracy of eastern Texas in anything but a fawning and praising manner for, as some apologists of the time believed, 'Christianizing' and 'saving' the Africans brought over in slave ships or bought and sold like cattle on town squares across the South.

I could literally go on for pages on this subject, just taking from the headlines of the polarized Right. Instead of ensuring that our children are taught the truths -- good and bad -- of American history, they are instead propagandized by pseudo-religious texts hiding as academic textbooks. For the Right, this does some great good, especially in the future, as a generation of ill-informed voters march in lockstep to the polls to elect demagogues who preach 'family values' while actually having none, who hold up the Founding Fathers as unquestionable holy prophets (with a few exceptions, like that Jefferson fellow...someone has to play Judas), who demand that the 'original intent' of the Constitution is more important than its role as the single most important and flexible political document in human history.

To prevent this from happening, parents, teachers and students need to insist on quality historical education for our children. To do this, we need to ensure that the people we elect to local and state school boards have the interests of all the students -- not just white, Evangelical Christian students of European descent -- as their primary goal. History must be taught as objectively as possible. American history must be provided a framework within time and space that fits with the greater history of human civilization -- regardless of beliefs of American exceptionalism or Evangelical dogma. American history should be taught as the history of the American people, in peace and war...the history of all the People, not just the upper class of the racial and cultural majority.

We must adequately prepare our children for the future by giving them a solid grounding in the past. If not, we are teaching them a false and fragile mythology that will collapse at the first hint of truth.