Commentary

'Was the Horse Dead?' and Other Clues To the Endurance of Historical Myths

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All of my students know that George Washington cut down the cherry tree. They are surprised when I tell them that that was an edifying story fabricated by "Parson" Mason Weems.

Almost all of them know that Georgia was a refuge for debtors. They are amazed when I say that only a handful, if any, debtors were among the original Georgians.

Augusta (where my college is) itself has a number of places with spurious stories attached to them. A recent handbook for tourists lists one attraction for Augusta, and that is the "haunted pillar." I tell my students that the upright column is all that was left of the old city market when a tornado blasted it in 1878; the part about its being haunted is nonsense.

My students are a well-disposed, agreeable lot; they seem to believe what I say. However, I have come to find that after a few years my former students have forgotten what I told them and remember only the myths and generalizations they knew before.

My efforts and those of all the teachers who are trying to transmit ''real" history seem in vain. (The clever people in business and politics know that. Advertisers and office seekers cater to popular history rather than my kind. A modern President would think twice before he would base a decision on real history, perhaps because too many people would be surprised.)

I only recently discovered how popular history is engendered and why it has such a hold on the American adult population.

The occasion was a tour of Augusta that I conducted for 40 3rd graders. My daughter was one of the children and had volunteered my services.

The tour plan was simple. The bus would halt at a historic site and I would gather the little ones around me and explain to them what really happened. Anyone who has ever attempted to gather 40 highly charged nine-year-olds around him and tried to hold their attention for more than, say, 25 seconds, will understand my problem.

My kind of history cannot be told in 25 seconds. I need time to develop the background and significance of my topic. Nine-year-olds couldn't care less about context and significance. "Make it exciting," 40 pairs of eyes said, "and make it quick."

We were in a Colonial churchyard cemetery, and I was engaged in an explanation of the career of William Few, a signer of the Constitution, who is interred there. "Who else is buried here?" a hyperactive little towhead broke in before I had reached the part about the Constitution.

I could see that I was losing them. Frantically, I searched my mind for something interesting. The only thing I could think of was a ridiculous legend that I had scoffed at a dozen times in my role as a history purist. For a split second, my professional integrity attempted to prevent me from telling the story to those innocents. However, a desperate man will stoop to unsuspected depths, and I was desperate.

"See that strange mound of bricks?" I said to the towhead.

"Yeah." He was interested, at least.

"An Indian chief is buried there," I said. Now he was all ears. "On his horse," I concluded.

"Wow!" he said. "Was the horse dead?"

I hadn't thought about that, and had to improvise as I went along, regretting that I had not made more of an effort to memorize the legend.

Having discovered the winning formula, I trotted out all the myths I could recall.

The favorite stop on the tour turned out to be the haunted pillar. I did not so much as mention the significance of the old market. I told a spellbound group that a curse had been put on the brick column, and that unimaginable, bad things would happen to anyone who tried to move it.

I told them to watch what happened to our bus driver--whose interest in what I was saying had increased in direct proportion to my abandonment of my kind of history in favor of the other kind--when he laid hands on it. No, sir, he said. He was not about to touch that pillar.

I discovered as a result of the tour that popular history is the creation of generations of desperate parents, teachers, and baby sitters, whose main concerns are survival and sanity.

The stories must be short, simple, and exciting; they do not have to be true. Thus the children form the world view that they carry about as their cultural inheritance for the rest of their lives.

The day after the tour, I received letters from all the children. The towhead wrote: "Thank you for showing me all thouse things, I like the cemetery the best. Espashaly the Indein bured on his horse. I will always remember it." He signed it "Your friend."

I felt a twinge of guilt in that part of the psyche formerly occupied by my professional integrity.

I had no doubt that he would remember the buried Indian. I wondered what I would tell him when I saw him as a young adult in my classroom.

Vol. 02, Issue 08, Page 19

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