"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Teach History Properly–In Chronological Order

Teaching history in chronological order seems logical and obvious. How can one understand the present without knowing the past; and more importantly appreciate the many twists and turns, victories and defeats, shameful arrogance, or heroic struggles that make a nation what it is?

This seemingly reasonable approach to history is followed less and less.  Facts, kings, and dates are increasingly passé, too difficult to remember, and thought incidental to our modern concerns of race, gender, and ethnicity. More unsettling is the new focus on perspective. Facts in themselves are irrelevant; and only have meaning when described by different observers. This is quite different than the traditional analytical approach of history – identifying the many factors contributing to a particular fact or event, and determining which were the most important.  This new, post-modern education makes no attempt to determine causality or result, and legitimizes subjective response over objective criticism. If slavery was the principal cause of the Civil War, say these post-modernist historians; the only way to understand both the conflict and the peculiar institution is through the eyes of slaves.  Reconstruction can only be appreciated if looked at through the lens of white oppression and black manipulation.

American history, according to Deconstructionist educators, must be seen as genocide (the systematic elimination of Native Americans), environmental depredation (mass killing of buffalo and deforestation), misogyny (denial of women’s rights) and male dominance, and capitalist greed (banking, investment, and private development).  These are the signifiers of American history, they claim.  Facts are only incidental temporal markers in what is the true trajectory of American events.  The only real history is the progress of women, blacks, gays, and ethnic minorities.

This approach, of course, denies the concept of ‘collective memory’ – that it is important for each and every student in America to have learned and remembered the seminal and significant events of our past.  While Selma, suffrage, and Stonewall were important milestones in American history, they are but bits in the overall trajectory of our 500 years. In order to truly understand why we are the way we are and why we ineluctably repeat history, we must know the facts.

Much has been made of our uninformed electorate, and our inability to dismiss irrelevant, misleading, exaggerated, or downright untrue accounts of history; and the deformation of the educational process of learning about our past only contributes to it.  If the period of the Civil War and Reconstruction is only taught through the eyes of slaves, then students will be unfairly deprived of an understanding how the legacy of that divisive period is still with us today.  Not only do the descendants of slaves still live in segregated ghettoes, but our political divide is still fought over the issue of states rights; our foreign policy is motivated by the same idealism and forced imposition of values as that of Radical Republicans.

The Founding Fathers were not just privileged white men, but thinkers of the Enlightenment; intellectuals, soldiers, diplomats, and philosophers.  Their vision of freedom, liberty, equality, and justice as enshrined in the Bill of Rights can only be understood if looked at within the context of the 18th Century, not in retrospect from the post-modernist lens of today.

Much has also been made about America’s increasing ethnic diversity. Why should we teach Hopi children about George Washington? Or Hispanic children about Herbert Hoover? They should be taught more ‘appropriate’ subjects such as the role of the Indian in early American life; or the the influence of salsa and meringue on American popular music.

Charles Moore, writing in The Telegraph (3.29.13) has observed the same trend in the United Kingdom:

Richard Evans (University of Cambridge) recently berated a colleague because the colleague spoke warmly of “a sense of shared memory”. This is insulting, Evans thinks, to British people of different racial origins. It would be better to teach our Afro-Caribbean citizens the history of Benin and Oyo, for example.

On the contrary it is more insulting to teach children of an ethnic minority only about their own culture, for it assumes that they cannot appreciate the complexity of a larger world, or cannot place their own culture within this more expansive context.

Perhaps most interestingly, Moore suggests that education on the basis of a shared national memory is important because it provides the basis for learning about the historical movements of other countries:

It is natural for knowledge to emanate outwards. One learns things first from one’s family, then from one’s teachers, then from the wider society and media. By analogy, this is the only sensible way to learn history. You will naturally want to learn first about the country in which you live…The  concept of nation has a meaning for the very young, as anyone who travels abroad with small children will attest. Your own country is the most accessible model for understanding all countries, just as mastery of your own language helps you master other ones. 

I never liked history as a student.  I was particularly impatient with European history and its endless succession of kings and empires.  American history was easier, but no less interesting.  All those taxes, Congressional debates, geographical disputes, diplomatic initiatives, compromises, and wars seemed irrelevant and dull.  I was just as ignorant and simplistic about politics as anyone, voting my emotions and principles without understanding anything about underlying causes.  I came to political, social, and economic points of view grossly and without subtlety.  I got the message finally, and not only learned more about history, but about the philosophical principles which lie behind it.  Like a Catholic convert, I became irritated and angry with those who still ignored history; or worse, those who distorted it because of ideological commitment.  I got particularly twisted when I read about the application of a highly subjective and selective approach to history.

Of course history is subject to interpretation.  What isn’t?  However, the facts of history and the factors that contributed to them are not.  It is the duty of educators to present these facts and factors to students and to teach them how to analyze, judge, and come to their own conclusions; not to bias the entire process.


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