For many years, history as taught in our public schools has served as a political and ideological punching bag, with most of the pugilists coming from the left side of the ring. Several years ago, for example, the Advanced Placement Test for U.S. History came under fire from some teachers and parents because it turned its focus away from politics and the men and women whose deeds and words made our country great, and instead delivered much more social history, focusing in particular on minorities, women’s rights, and the mistakes and wrongs committed in the course of our history.
Recently, Illinois state Rep. LaShawn K. Ford proposed that public schools lock away their history books permanently or at least until they can be replaced with those focusing more on minorities, women, the LGBT crew, and other groups. Ford contends that the current textbooks teach racism and white privilege, which is somewhat hard to imagine given the changes in publishing companies in the last 40 years.
Many schools, for instance, already serve up as a part of their curriculum Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” a text assailed for both its radical politics and its misinformation. The New York Times “1619 Project,” which claims that our Founding Fathers broke from Britain because Americans wished to keep their slaves, has also entered thousands of classrooms. Is it possible that Rep. Ford wants to veer off even deeper into left field?
A Brief History of History
The ancients gave us the standards we employ in writing history today: the importance of recording past events, objectivity, and the value of using historical figures as role models.
Herodotus, the “Father of History,” not only wrote of the war between the Greeks and Persians but also recorded many stories told to him by others. Frequently accused by other ancient historians of making up some of these tales for the entertainment of his readers, Herodotus was labeled by some as the “Father of Lies.” Modern investigation has revealed the reality behind many of this early historian’s reports.
Thucydides was one of these critics of Herodotus. To his own history of the war between Sparta and Athens, Thucydides applied a much more stringent method of research, crosschecking sources when he could and writing in a more removed and formal style. His lofty standards remain in place today.
Other historians wished to use their subjects as figures worthy of emulation or as villains whose character flaws should be shunned. Plutarch is the most famous of these biographers, and in his “Lives” he compares and contrasts 48 famous Greeks and Romans, such as Alexander the Great with Julius Caesar.
Until the 20th century, most of our American histories focused on politics and on individuals, mostly male, mostly white. Since then, historians have broadened the scope of history, with some of them becoming famous in the bargain for their views. Frederick Jackson Turner, for example, became known for his “Frontier thesis,” which proclaimed an end to the Westward movement and the idea of an American frontier. Will Durant, joined later in his research by his wife, Ariel, produced “The Story of Civilization,” an 11-volume history of the world for which they received a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The last 80 years has, in turn, brought us excellent histories of slavery, the Civil Rights movement, and the accomplishments of African Americans. Biographers have dug deep into the lives of American luminaries like Thomas Jefferson, Lyndon Johnson, Abigail Adams, and Booker T. Washington, shining light on their virtues and their flaws.
The Dangers of Propaganda
These investigations have, of course, trickled down into our textbooks. The U.S. history book I studied in the 11th grade in 1968 focused, I am sure, much more on politics and wars than on minorities and social movements. Since then, our textbooks offer a much larger stage to those figures of our past—black, white, and brown, men and women—social change, and even conflicting interpretations of past events. We should celebrate many of these changes.
But the danger comes when history becomes propaganda, when we ignore some past heroes because of their sex or their skin color, when we interpret events in the worst possible light, when we forget to consider the actions and ideas of our ancestors by the standards of their time and judge them instead by our modern values of morality and behavior.
Adding to this danger of deceptive history is the abysmal ignorance of young Americans about the past. In her online article “Abolishing History From the Classroom Is What Got Us Into This Mess,” Annie Holmquist asks of young people: “If they don’t know what came before their lifetimes, or the consequences resulting from these previous historical events, then how can we expect them to do anything but run with the crowd toward a multitude of evils? And if their minds cannot understand these things, then how can we expect them to elect or lead a government that is anything but degenerate?”
History matters. An understanding and appreciation of the past is vital to the health of our country and our views of reality and current events. Without that understanding and appreciation, we become, as we are today, a nation adrift on the stormy seas of radicalism and anti-American schemes.
So what can we do? How can we impart to our young people a balanced history of our past?
Land of Hope
A year ago, I reviewed Wilfred McClay’s “Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story” for The Epoch Times. In my evaluation of this excellent history, I wrote:
“Because of this even-handed approach, ‘bad guys’ and ‘good guys’ are a rarity in “Land of Hope.” McClay brings to his analysis of historical figures not only his craft and knowledge of his subject, but also the realization that the people of the past were not stick figures but living, breathing human beings, people of their time who had no crystal ball for seeing into the future, whose motives, like ours, were a mixed bag of the personal and the visionary.”
I also offered readers this quotation from McClay:
“One of the worst sins of the present—not just ours but any present—is its tendency to condescend toward the past, which is much easier to do when one doesn’t trouble to know the full context of that past or try to grasp the nature of its challenges.”
“Land of Hope,” I firmly believe, should find a place in every classroom and every home in our land.
And now a second treasure from Wilfred McClay has appeared. Written in partnership with master teacher John McBride, “A Teacher’s Guide to Land of Hope” recently arrived in the mail and now sits at my elbow as I write these words. Here is one of the finest teacher guides I’ve ever seen, with its inclusion of hundreds of speeches, songs, comments, summations, questions to ask students, and suggested writing activities. Coupled with McClay’s textbook, “A Teacher’s Guide to Land of Hope” offers high school students and the rest of us a wonderfully nuanced means for exploring the past.
Remembering Who We Were and Are
In the “Epilogue” of this guide, the authors explain that Americans have always engaged in an ongoing conversation about their history.
“That conversation, to be a real and honest one, must include the good, the bad, and the ugly, the ways we have failed and fallen short, not merely what is pleasing to our national self-esteem. But by the same token, the great story, the thread that we share, should not be lost in a blizzard of details or a hailstorm of rebukes. American is, and remains, a land of hope, a land to which much of the rest of the world longs to come.”
Included in the Questions and Answers part of the “Epilogue” is this quote from G.K. Chesterton: “Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.”
If we remove love of our country from our history books, our culture, and our conversation, we leave our young people bitter and in despair. If we fail to teach them their history—the bad, the ugly, and the good—we will eventually find ourselves with a degenerate government and culture.
Whatever its faults and failings, America is still the country of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It’s past time, long past time, to instill the full meaning of those words in our children.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.