Saturday, July 19, 2014

Selecting our History

I was listening to a panel about using history in fiction. There was a discussion of  different views of history and when the gentleman raised in England was asked what he had been taught in school about George Washington, he jokingly answered “Washington Who?”  He went on to talk about the fact that for British school children the American revolution was not a big focus and that other events in British political history were emphasized instead.
        There seemed to be a feeling on the panel  that this was indicative of some sort of flaw. That is was somehow not quite ideal that in different countries basic education in history should be radically different in what parts of history were emphasized or even covered. I do agree that contradictory facts being taught do indicated that there is a problem somewhere. But I don’t think this is what is being referenced in regards to the difference between American and British education.
         Teaching children history does not only have one goal. It’s not only to provide an abstract sampling of how humans and human societies have reacted in the past. It is also to show the child where he or she fits into the world in a broads sense. History should illuminate to context the child is going to have to function in by explaining it’s roots and development.  
         In America, as in many countries, the state takes a role in providing children with education. This connects in my mind to an article by Ta-Nehisi Coates called The Case for Reparations. The article is fairly long so here are a few quotes that relate to the point I want to make:
“ The last slaveholder has been dead for a very long time. The last soldier to endure Valley Forge has been dead much longer. To proudly claim the veteran and disown the slaveholder is patriotism √† la carte. A nation outlives its generations. ... If Thomas Jefferson’s genius matters, then so does his taking of Sally Hemings’s body. If George Washington crossing the Delaware matters, so must his ruthless pursuit of the runagate Oney Judge.”

“And so we must imagine a new country. Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. The recovering alcoholic may well have to live with his illness for the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunken lie. Reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans.”

“What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.”

          Sometimes in history a state has been defined by the rule of a royal family, regardless of whether there was any other relationship between various territories they controlled, or by a certain land area regardless of who was living on it or governing over it. But America aspires to be a Nation-State, defied be a national identity that is more than the sum of its parts.
from US army photo Essay
          Individuals, laws, government bureaucracy, land areas, these are all things out there in the world that have in various ways a substance independent of anyone’s beliefs. But what ties these disparate things together is a nation. A nation is something that functions because  we all make-believe really hard that it is actually real. It’s true that in some cases a nation mostly overlaps with a sort of meta-tribe, where shared ancestry, shared food, shared language, shared social expectations create a sort of kinship, the feeling that other members are distant relatives, of one extended family, leavened by only a few outsiders who have identified with the family and been adopted. But America is too large and too diverse for a sense of blood relation to serve as an anchor for national identity. Our nationhood can only have and much power as our shared commitment to pretending can give it.
          That’s what national identity is really about. A shared set of beliefs about what it means to be an American. A set of values and historical presidents that we claim as defining. The act of taking parts of history and saying this is our story makes us one people who can then act in continuation of the themes of that story
An alcoholic is bound by the facts of physical and biological reality to the events of his past. If some of those facts are negative or disreputable, that doesn’t threaten his self identification. Steps he takes to acknowledge and repair past mistakes can only strengthen his integrity.
National identity is something different. There are going to be bad things and things no longer approved of in every nation’s past. And these should not’ be denied as facts of history nor their consequences ignored. But if the bad things are primarily the stories we choose to tell ourselves about who we are, if the mistakes are not relegated to dark corners but put on center stage and emphasized, if past crimes and failure are what we choose as defining moments for our nation, there can be only two results.
First individuals can cease to identify as part of a nation. They can lose all enthusiasm for exercising, and working and fighting to make America stronger and better. Inhibitions against damaging the nation and depriving future generations can be lowered. In this case government taxes and other requirements come to be seen not as contribution to a common community but as an imposition to an evil organization foreign to this individual. Government benefits cease to be seen as a gesture of solidarity that ties us together but instead seen as an appropriation of the Other that deserves to be taken for a sucker.
The other option is even worse. Individuals can choose to identify with the nation but re-interpret those stories as good. They can take stories meant to be cautionary tales and instead use them as models of praiseworthy behavior. We could end up with people who shout ‘patriotism’ and  waive symbols of racism all the more fervently  on the basis of this logic: I’m proud t be an American, Americans are racist, therefore I’m proud to be racist.
We need to avoid both these outcomes. We need a national self image that is truly positive and that can inspire individuals to good acts. We need to bind ourselves together as a community of good moral character with momentum towards accomplishing good ends. And this brings me back to how we select which parts of history to teach in our schools.
While it is good to include a few cautionary tales of weaknesses we can fall into, the overwhelming majority of teach to the very young and proclaim most loudly to the world, should be positive tales. We should be putting the emphasis on times we showed the character we want to continue to embody. We should select from history, to tell first and repeat most often, those incidents that reflect what we aspire to be. When we are forming coming generations, we should be focusing the majority of our teaching on those parts of the past that we want to form the pattern of our future.

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