The Internet Monk
A Webjournal edited by Michael Spencer
Don't Know Much About History
Postmodernism turns off the History Channel
by Michael Spencer
At least once during any year, those organizations that attempt to monitor the effectiveness of American education send forth an alarm about the appalling state of some aspect of our school system. We've discovered that monkeys in Madagascar do better than our middle schoolers in math. We've heard that our children know so little science that it's a wonder Luke Helder knew how to open a mailbox, much less make a pipe bomb to blow one up. And this month we have learned that aborigines in the outback know more American history than our kids.
I knew this from watching Jay Leno. Jay does a routine called "Jaywalking" where he does "person on the street" segments about any topic that strikes him. More than once he has ventured out into the adult population of California to show us that 99 out of a 100 people at a grocery store have no idea who the first four presidents were, but they can name all the Brady Bunch or the Wu Tang Clan. Jay thinks it is hilarious that no one knows who won World War II. I find it depressing and not a little frightening.
But I'm not surprised. One thing our postmodern elitist academic gatekeepers can't keep their hands off of is any real notion of a teachable American history. The current crop of literati are deconstructing history, inventing history, rewriting history and replacing history. They despise history in the cause of being postmodern historians. The history that is left over from their improvements and alterations looks like the remnants of a buffet after a Weight-Watchers convention.
Of course, that is their point. There really is no single American history to teach, they remind us. There are only the various selfishly created viewpoints of various political, racial and social groups vying for power. The biggest favor we can do for American young people is tell them that George Washington was not a great President, but a bad man who owned slaves. We need to explain the rampant sexism of our nation, and teach the historical significance of forgotten women and silenced women rather than the too often heard voices of dead white males. According to the crowd in charge, real education in history teaches kids to reject any history forced upon them by the establishment and to write their own based upon the claims of whatever victimized group they choose to identify with.
In this method, the standard American histories that most of us learned up through the 1970's were simply tools to enforce conformity, empower white capitalists and oppress minorities. In this endeavor, schools, by refusing to teach such oppressive and deceptive ideologies disguised as history, are actually doing real education, and not indoctrination. Or so they say.
I'm not here to disagree with all of these somewhat Marxist critiques of history. There is real value in part of this approach. The teaching of alternate streams of history can do a lot to enhance our understanding of our collective history. Women, minorities and forgotten voices do need to be heard, and criticisms of our nation and its leaders are important parts of competently taught history.
For example, I do not have a problem with getting out more of truth about Jefferson's two-faced stand on slavery. We need to know that the man who penned the Declaration didn't have the spine to free his own slaves, and may have sold some of his own offspring. Lincoln is a great President, but I think we need to know about the massive expansion of powers he inspired. I want my kids to know about the slaughter of blacks in Oklahoma and the mistreatment of Native Americans by the Federal government. As a conservative, I think there are some voices and viewpoints that have been left out along the way, and I'd like to hear more from them. JFK and LBJ weren't the saviors of mankind. Reagan ended the Cold War and Clinton received oral sex in the Oval Office. I'm for Black history, Women's history and even Canine History as long as it helps tell the truth of American history. Let's tell it all.
In fact, if someone wants to teach history from the point of view of minorities, immigrants, the oppressed, the overlooked and the neglected, and say there is no such thing as American history except in the imaginations of WASP Neanderthal history teachers, I would encourage them to start their own schools and teach away. But public schools- America's public schools, mind you- are a different story entirely. In America's public schools, one way or another, we must create a coherent American history that prepares a young person to be an informed citizen. If we fail to do that, we are endangering the future of the Republic.
American public education has a unique mission. It is the sole institution in our public life charged and accountable for passing on American values and the American vision to the future citizens of the republic. Private schools, churches, Boy Scouts, VFWs, families and libraries all may join in to some extent, but it is public schools that will do the greatest amount of work in this arena. We cannot afford to let public schools abandon American history, or become carriers of the idea that our country is to be loathed, blamed and destroyed because we have been largely white, enthusiastically capitalist and militarily strong. Public schools must teach a coherent American story, that prepares young people to obey laws as well as change laws; criticize the military and serve in the military; admit our imperfections and preserve our greatness.
It is particularly distressing that minorities grow up in America thinking we are the enemy. How many young African-Americans have been led to believe that America has gone nowhere but backwards on civil and human rights, all the while living in a country that has paid in blood, war and unprecedented national soul searching to produce the most free and opportunity laden society in human history? I still have young blacks sit in my classes, alongside their white friends, and talk about how they are "held back" in America. Where do they get this? What kind of history class isn't telling the story sufficiently that a black American is daily thanking God his ancestors were brought here rather than being left in Africa? Rather than realizing they won the lottery of history, many young blacks look at America as a police state determined to lock them up and shut them out.
The story that should be taught in public schools shouldn't be white-washed, inflexible or partial. Students interested in America's flaws should not only be free to research and report that part of American history, but should hear the facts from the teacher. But at the same time, those students deserve to know a coherent story that gives them a reason to love America and live in America with an appreciation for that honor.
The Postmodernists like us to believe that America is fatally flawed by colonialism, racism, sexism and militarism. They believe these flaws can only be overcome by subverting the entire historical and political establishment that brought about these flaws. The problem is that when we subvert history, we are no longer able to understand these problems in context. The solutions to the problems that have been part of America from its beginnings won't come from ignoring those voices that bear witness to our failures, but neither will they come from destroying the American story so that our future citizens loath and detest the very nation they live in.
It is possible to have an American history experience that satisfies both sides, if we think about a basic American value: Heroism. Heroism is to be found among those who came to this country, and among those whose country was taken. Heroism is found among the founders and among the slaves that made the economic engine of much of America possible. Heroism is found among those who wrote laws and those who broke them; among white and black, male and female, President and poor farmer. Can't we tell our national story with all these heroic voices adding a word to the play? I think we can, and in turn, those who hear that story will be inspired to live their part of the American story with heroism, appreciation, and hope.