Social Studies Opinion

Can History Teachers Build a New Politics?

By Marc Tucker — September 21, 2017 7 min read
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I woke up this morning to an NPR interview with an Italian-American. The fellow being interviewed was a bit anguished. He understood, he said, the problem Native Americans have with statues honoring Christopher Columbus, the man who paved the way for what many have characterized as the genocide of Native Americans. But, he said, it was important for NPR’s listeners to realize that, when many Italian immigrants were coming to the United States at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, they were themselves often the victims of vicious discrimination, and were deeply grateful for the way in which, in some sense, Columbus validated their legitimacy on these shores. He seemed to be pleading for understanding, not racial or ethnic supremacy.

A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times Book Review published a brilliant essay by Eric Foner on “The Legend of Robert E. Lee.” In that essay, Foner defenestrates the admiring biographies of Lee that reached their apogee with Douglas Southall Freeman’s multi-volume biography written in the 1930s. Foner acknowledges Lee’s courage, military skill, leadership qualities, and statesmanship at the end, when he urged his men to lay down their arms. But, at the same time, he points out that other distinguished Southern graduates of West Point chose to fight for the Union, while Lee not only owned slaves, but characterized African-Americans as innately inferior humans (another way of saying that he was a white supremacist) and blamed the war on the abolitionists. Foner points out that Freeman’s work came out at about the same time that W.E.B. Du Bois came out with his “Black Reconstruction in America, which painted a very different picture, an interpretation which has subsequently been adopted by most American historians. I finished Foner’s essay with a view of Lee that honored qualities in the man that I admire but believing that Lee was in many ways the incarnation of an image of the Southern cause that enabled the deeply racist basis of slavery to survive and prosper long after the South had been defeated in the Civil War.

One way of looking at the NPR interview and Foner’s retrospective is simply to say, as so many have before, that there is no historical truth; the ‘truth’ changes with the flow of time and the needs and perspectives of the writers and the readers at any given time.

That view, of course, would make it pretty easy for our beleaguered history teachers. They might have to find a hard-to-negotiate thread between various opposing forces in their own community, but they would be under no obligation to teach their students any particular interpretation of history or even any particular approach to coming up with such an interpretation, because all interpretations are equally valid.

I view that approach as cowardly. When there is evidence, we all have an obligation to honor it and to do our best to interpret it with honesty, integrity and the analytical capacities that come with the ability to reason. We should acknowledge the difference between the moral convictions of our own time and those of the time we are studying, but we should not be afraid of conveying our own moral judgments and the reasoning that led us to them.

I think this country now has an opportunity, an opportunity that these two stories exemplify. Maybe, just maybe, with the right kind of leadership, we have a chance to rise above identity politics, an opportunity to create a politics based instead on our need for one another, our ability to reach across all of our divisions to create something that only this incredible mixing of ideas, backgrounds, cultures, races and religious beliefs could create.

And I think that process needs to begin with the way we think about, talk about, and act on our history.

A little honesty would be a good starting place for a new kind of history. Have any of you read Francis Parkman’s histories of this country before the revolution? They are brilliant and beautifully written. When you do, you will find out that the Iroquois were often as violent in their treatment of other Native Americans as were any of the colonials who eventually defeated the Native American tribes in this country. If you read the complicated history of American slavery, you will quickly discover that some of the people who sold the Black Africans to the slavers were themselves Black Africans, and that the practice of slavery existed in some places there before the Atlantic slave trade.

I am not saying this to exonerate the Europeans who, on their imperial march, slaughtered the Native Americans during their expansion throughout the Americas or the English and American slavers who delivered their human cargo to Caribbean colonials who worked them to death. Nor am I saying it to diminish the humanity and worth of the Native Americans or Black Africans involved.

Not at all.

I am arguing for a more complicated view of human nature, which would lead to a more complicated view of history. To tell you the truth, I see some historians and many adults as grown children. That is, having found that some of the nation’s heroes have flaws, all they can see is the feet of clay, and they turn on them, with all the fury of a former lover. Following the Vietnam War, this happened on a grand scale, as the college students of the day and many of their professors, called into question every hero and heroine the country had formerly venerated, and indeed called into question the idea that the country as a whole had a claim on any kind of virtue.

Columbus was a remarkable sailor, whose courage and ability to command, combined with his navigational skill, enabled him to make an ocean crossing against unbelievable odds that changed the world. The place he landed, in what is now the Bahamas, was occupied by a tribe of native people renowned for their peaceful character, who welcomed Columbus with open arms. The Spanish government, laying claim to everything Columbus found, concluding that the islands these natives inhabited had no economic value and needing labor elsewhere, enslaved them and took them to other islands to the east, where every single one of them promptly died. It is natural that Italian-American immigrants to the United States in the 1930s would have been very proud of Columbus and just as natural that other Americans, those whose sympathies lie with the Lucayans who were wiped out, would view Columbus very differently.

Why can we not teach both sides of this story, including the reasons for Italian pride in the midst of their own exclusion from the American dream and the injury done to native peoples in Columbus’ wake? Why can’t we tell a story of Robert E. Lee that includes his personal courage, his skill as a military strategist, his statesmanship at the end of the war, but also his role in legitimizing a view of African-Americans that ultimately poisoned American politics for almost a century after the Civil War?

There is an endless argument about whether our schools simply reflect our values and culture or whether they can and should be used to change our values and our culture. I suspect that most teachers see themselves as helping preserve the values and culture they most value and changing the values and culture they like least.

I hope that our educators see now that we are all deeply flawed and we are all capable of generosity and statesmanship. History is not an endless parade of people and countries that are either good or evil, virtuous or hateful. It is an endless parade of people and countries that have all of these characteristics.

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were both slave holders. And both did remarkable things for this country for which we should be eternally grateful. The United States has been guilty of some abominable acts since its founding. But that does not invalidate farsighted acts of our leaders and citizens that have made this country a beacon of hope for millions of people since our founding.

Am I a fool? Is it ridiculous to believe that if we teach young people about our country this way they will become citizens capable of seeing the world in a more complex way, through a looking glass that will enable them to make much better decisions about who they vote for? Is it possible that the way we teach history can help us rise above sloganeering? Can we have a politics based on empathy and understanding rather than anger? Could we begin in the classroom with a new way of teaching of history?

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