Textbook History

February 27, 2012


Remember a couple of years ago, when some people raised a big stink because some textbook publishers planned to cut Jefferson and Labor Unions from American History curriculum and replace them with Phyllis Schlafly and Prosperity Theology? It’s faded from the front pages, but what is happening on this issue?

It was in the Spring of 2010 when the New York Times, among many others, broke the national story about groups seeking to re-write American History curriculum in Texas. The authors were unhappy about the way certain elements of American History had been taught and wanted to de-emphasize some portions of the story while popularizing and emphasizing otherelements that supported their ideological perspective.

Well, to be honest, every teacher always imparts some kind of personal, ethical perspective on a history curriculum. Honest teachers try hard to educate, rather than indoctrinate their pupils and make a sincere attempt to include voices with many different opinions and perspectives. Most mainline historians agree about some of the bigger conclusions of history: slavery is bad, democracy is good, progress improves the lot of mankind, etc. These are not disputed, but the perception of what they mean can be modified by skillful manipulation of what material is presented.

There is now a new brand of historian, backed by powerful and well-funded institutions such as the Heritage Foundation (and other right-wing brain trusts). The new historians look at history not as the cumulative record of the past, but as a foundation for decisions made today about the future. For these historians, the truth is not an absolute thing, but merely an interpretation that serves the current moral need.

They view Thomas Jefferson’s reservations about religion and his activism in preventing collusion between government and church leaders as an unfortunate quirk of history that is best left untold.  They like to portray the founding people of this nation as business leaders and
entrepreneurs who hated regulation and taxation.  Some of them do fit that description, most don’t.  They do not like to depict the exploitation of America as a corporate act promulgated by the East India Company (the great-grand-daddy of modern multinational corporations), with the help of an obedient parliament (because of a weak and ineffectual monarch), so they just omit these details.

In speaking of the American Civil War, they talk of the conflict as a national tragedy, which it undoubtedly was, but then they go further by saying that it was the Southerners of breeding and gentility that tried to find a compromise with Northern extremists who hated state autonomy and libertarian freedoms. The extremists in question, were the anti-slavery abolitionists who were unwilling to compromise on the issue of slavery and unpaid servitude justified by legal ownership of another human being.

We have a whole group of historians who seek to re-write the history of our nation from a Biblical perspective.  For example, the Bible in several passages supports and defends the institution of slavery.  Slavery was a common practice in the ancient world. It is not surprising that the authors of the Bible did not take issue with something that was as common in their day as the multinational corporation is in ours.

These historians seek to bring forward these antique attitudes toward slavery, towards racism, and towards economic and political oppression. They seek to portray slave owners not as economic opportunists, but as good and virtuous men of business who really did care about the men and women they owned, who subscribed to and abided by the Biblical framework for “good” slave ownership.

There is another faction of revisionist historians who support the notion that Ronald Reagan was our greatest President and denigrate the memory of Franklin Roosevelt as a dangerous socialist.  The fact that FDR led us out of the Great Depression and to a victory in WWII, culminating in world leadership and almost universal esteem throughout the world, while Reagan transformed us from the world’s largest creditor nation into the world’s greatest debtor nation - these facts are immaterial and unimportant.  What is important is that Reagan was a vocal proponent of their personal ideology and FDR was not.

And that is really the point here. History should not be something that can be rewritten and used to support and defend an ideological or political point of view. History should be blind to the current moment. We should tell what happened, both the good and the bad, and not need to explain that our forebears were just plain people, like us. History isn’t just about rich people, or powerful people, or great people, but about all people. It is part of our heritage. It is our story and when we allow others to modify that story for their own ends, they steal from us something that cannot be replaced.

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