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

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Why Americans Can’t Learn History

I like all Americans had to take American History in high school, and there began my decades-long flight from the chronicles past.  I don’t blame the teachers who did what they could to give the subject some resonance with 16-yr. olds, but there was only so much you could do with taxes and tariffs, treaties, third parties, and agricultural pricing. Even war, which could have been interesting, had all the juice taken out of it. By the time Mr. Haller had gotten to the actual battles, we were bored, restless, and tired.  He spent so much time on the antecedents to war – why the French did this or that; how the Napoleonic Wars featured in the Louisiana Purchase; how the boundaries of Florida changed hands three times in twenty years complicating the War of 1812 – that when the first muskets rattled and the cannons thumped their charges on New Orleans, we had totally lost interest.

I don’t blame Mr. Haller.  He did what he could and injected his obvious love of history into the course; but his interest – the economic basis for conflict – was totally lost on us. It was bad enough to have to remember dates of obscure amendments or diplomatic forays to London; but having to learn the principles of micro- and macro-economics as well was beyond our reach.

My roommate in college majored in European History.  If I ever thought that American history was dry and perversely complicated, one look into Dave’s textbooks set the record straight.  There wasn’t just King George to worry about, but hundreds of kings.  There were French, Spanish, and Dutch kings; emperors of Prussia, Hapsburg, and Russia.  There were popes, cardinals, and powerful bishops.  Everyone fought each other in Europe all the time.  I had a vague recollection that none of our wars – Revolutionary, French and Indian, War of 1812 – lasted more than a few years, so that the whole idea of a Hundred Years War was incomprehensible.

Everybody got into the fray.  Not only did countries try to grab territory, regain it, defeat rival monarchs for hegemonic purposes; but so did popes.  And what was this thing called The Holy Roman Empire?  I thought it was the Catholic Church until my roommate told me know, it was more complicated than that and included the Kingdoms of Germany, Burgundy, and Bohemia.

Dates were another thing.  I usually could remember within a few years when the Pilgrims landed and when the Declaration of Independence was signed, but went waffly when it came to Jamestown and the Constitution.  My roommate had to remember 100 times the dates of American history.  There were even classmates who studied World History.  They had to contend not only with the trickery of Popes and Tudors, but with that of Chinese Mandarins, Japanese Emperors, Persian Shahs, and Mauryan kings.

My tolerance for and even appreciation of history improved when I started travelling abroad. When walking through the Lodi Gardens in Delhi I had to wonder who the Lodis were and where they came from.  Who built Qutb Minar and why?  I lived across the street from Humayun’s tomb and took my morning constitutional in its formal gardens overlooking the Yamuna River.  Who was he?

I read Romila Thapar’s seminal work on Indian history but it never took hold.  I still couldn’t get past antecedents, treaties, taxes, and armies.  Besides, as a young 25-year old in India in the late 60s, I was far more interested in wandering the bazaars of Old Delhi and Calcutta, smoking Bombay Black, and singing bhajans in the holy temples of Mt. Abu than I was in finding out how the Delhi Sultanate was established.

My experience in Latin America was no different.  I had a passing interest in the origins of native cultures – did the first inhabitants come over the Bering Strait, or across the Atlantic? Was there any truth to the theory that the first to land on the American continent were Phoenicians? – but, like India, South America was too good to miss; and I spent my time hiking in the Andes, trekking through the high- and low-Amazon, drinking chicha, and eating Argentinian parilladas. Simon Bolivar, the institution of martial governments, banana republics, and conflicts with the United States were far less important.

This all changed when I began my travels to the Deep South of the US.  I am not sure how my interest came about (I think it was the warm water, beaches, and palm trees of Florida on winter trips with my family), but over ten years ago I started to take longer and longer trips to Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, and the Florida Panhandle.  I stayed in meticulously restored antebellum mansions and learned about the history of the plantations from owners who were often descended from the original owners.  Many homes had kept the written records of the early, slave-owning families who lived there – ledgers and chronicles of the economics and practical life of slavery.

The South is a potent place, and just the names of the states evoke images of the Civil War, Civil Rights, slavery, Jim Crow, and cotton.  ‘Mississippi’ is not a neutral name like Nebraska or North Dakota. The Deep South seemed like a foreign country to me, so different from my New England roots.  The climate was different as was the religion, the politics, the language, the food, and the culture.  The South had still not forgotten the Civil War, hated the Federal Government even more than Lincoln’s Yankees, and was still feeling a lingering resentment over Reconstruction. “Our tea is sweet, our words are long; our days are warm, and our faith is strong” sums it all up.

The South is part of the United States.  For a time it was not, but before that was very much American – different in class, intent, and culture, but as newly and legitimately American as the North.  Jamestown was the South’s Plymouth.  It wasn’t enough for me to slide through the South, touch on a few facts of history, and move on.  To understand the South was to understand antecedents, dates, and influences.  My serious study of history had begun.

It was easy to study Southern history because it was right there.  There were hundreds of antebellum houses whose owners had direct links to a pre-war past.  There were museums, local archives, and an a living, oral history. I could see the Mississippi river, look out over cotton fields, and feel the heat of the summer.

I stayed in a B&B in rural South Carolina, and the owners forbearers had witnessed the depredations of Sherman’s march through the state.  He showed me the bullet holes in the walls, the old, charred remains of the tool shed, and the cannon balls still buried in the cow pasture.  Sherman’s march was not just a military event, but a real and quite vivid social one.  The livelihood of South Carolina’s residents was destroyed by Sherman’s army.

A few years later I read a journal by a Southern lady who was turned into a refugee by the Northern occupying army.  She was thrown out of her home, saw her brothers thrown into jail, and wandered through the Delta, spat upon by freed slaves and upcountry yeomen alike.  Her story, although a personal diary, illustrated some of the political and economic divisions in the South.  There were indeed resentments on the part of the white working poor against the plantation owners who had precipitated the war and who had never shared their riches.  Reconstruction was indeed a tumultuous if not chaotic time with shifting allegiances, reconfigurations of power, and exploitive Northerners and Southerners alike.

Because of that diary, I began to study Reconstruction and read everything, especially Eric Foner’s comprehensive, objective history.  The more I read, the more I realized that nothing much had changed.  The parochial, punitive, and mission-driven approach of the Northern Radicals was not that much different from George W. Bush’s Neocons who felt they had a mission to spread the word of democracy and free markets in the Middle East but were totally ignorant of the tribal, ethnic, and religious differences which would neuter any American intervention.  The rapid inclusion of freed slaves into the electoral process was mission trumping reality, for the North had no idea how militantly enraged the Southern aristocracy would be at the sight of former field hands cavorting in the State Legislature.  This one unbelievably naïve act set back the cause of Southern reconciliation by a hundred years.

Which brings me to the study of history.  Why did it take me so long to appreciate what my high school teachers were insisting all along?  History is not only fascinating but the only way to understand the present.  How dumb could I have been?

The problem is how to teach history in an engaging way without dumbing it down?  One way has been to personalize history, much in the way that my B&B owner did when he recreated Sherman’s march through his property or the proprietor of Anchuca in Vicksburg who told the story of his great-relatives who had suffered through and survived Grant’s siege.  Yet these attempts have restricted a broader historical vision.  Slave journals may shed some light on the peculiar institution, but only illuminate one small piece of the story.  The same is true of journals by pioneer women who described the hardships of the Conestoga wagon life, Indian raids, and harsh winters.

Casting history with a strong political bias has appeal, but is always distorting and often false.  There is nothing like a fiery Marxist fulminating on the exploitation of capitalism, lionizing the working class, and calling for revolutionary reform of elitist institutions, to get student juices going, but no parent or taxpayer can be happy with such a self-serving and one-sided presentation of past events.

A better way might be to approach teaching history from a thematic perspective.  For example, a course on Slavery which would include a rigorous analysis of the economics of the institution and a discussion about whether it would have survived or died on its own.  The course would include a study of the social and class dimensions of the Southern aristocracy which contributed to the perpetuation of enslavement and the opposing Northern beliefs in Free Labor. The second half of the course would be on the legacy of slavery, and how America still suffers the legacy of slavery and Reconstruction.

Another course might be taught on American Enterprise and how the principles of Puritanism and the Enlightenment provide the foundation for American exceptionalism; and the focus would be on how we became the free-market, defiantly independent, entrepreneurial, devoutly capitalist nation we now are.

Another course on Westward Expansion and Manifest Destiny would touch on the very American traits of ambition, wealth, and power.

In other words courses should link history to the present by showing not only how the events of the past influence those of today, but how history repeats itself.  There is something very American in our outlook, approach, and political philosophy; and it is not at all surprising that the Northern Radicals of Reconstruction and the Neocons of the Bush era have so much in common.

In short, make history real, relevant, and immediate.

This is a difficult task, for if there is any one lesson learned by history students it is that there is no such thing as fact. From ‘Who fired the first shot at Fort Sumter?’ to ‘Would slavery have survived without the Civil War?’ nothing is absolutely clear and unequivocal.  To complicate matters there is no such thing as a historian, but many historians - Marxist, Feminist, Creationist, Progressive, Southern, black, and Socialist historians. And we haven’t even begun to talk about accreditation, minimum standards, and The Basic Curriculum.

What is clear is that American students are historically adrift.  Students have heard of George Washington, but are not exactly sure why he was important. “There was actually a First World War? Really? And we fought who? Germany and Japan?  You’ve got to be kidding”.

History teachers must do a radical rethink of their profession and focus on the ends, not the means.  If students get a rounded, complete, and unbiased view of slavery; and learn how and why it is still a legacy today, then remembering dates, bills, laws, legislative session, Wobblies, and Whigs is of far less importance.

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