What Is History?
Throughout our lives - particularly through our childhood - we receive information on history through many sources, and are often encouraged to be passive receptacles of this information. It may not be until college (or not at all) that an alternate view of history is put forward, or even the idea that there are alternate views of history. Instead, we are taught (indirectly, through the actions of our teachers) that history is static, a list of known facts to fit on a timeline.
The truth, of course, couldn't be farther from that idea.
There are, of course, some "facts" in history. The Battle of Gettysburg (to continue our American theme) was fought July 1-3 in 1863 in the vicinity of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Facts such as these are, of course, neither important nor interesting, they just are. In order for this fact to be meaningful, it has to be hung on a larger context. Who fought? Why were they fighting? What, exactly, happened? And, then, naturally - who won?
The context is the non-static. Imagine having a conversation about a past event in your life with a friend who was there. How many times have you remembered differing, or even entirely contradictory details about that event? (Daily, if you live with my husband.) So what really happened? Your version, or your friend's version? There may in fact be some concrete, non-static, ultimate TRUTH of what happened (always the way my husband remembers it, naturally).*
But that ultimate truth, if it ever existed, isn't accessible to us any more. Our own perspective and bias has created individual narratives of the event. History is - or should be - the attempt to bind those narratives together to create a meaningful account of the event. Historians spend a lot of time arguing about which facts support which narratives.
And I believe that it is good for us to be exposed to alternative perspectives. If we want to boil down history to WHAT HAPPENED, I MEAN THE FINAL, ULTIMATE TRUTH, we will just end up with a boring list of dates and titles.
Even those are difficult to come by. Do we call it "The Battle of the Little Bighorn", or "Custer's Last Stand", or "The Battle of Greasy Grass Creek"?** Each name suggests a different interpretation and a different explanation of the forces surrounding this clash between the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne and the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the US Army.
Do we call it "The Civil War" or "The War of Northern Aggression", or "The War Between the States", or "The War of the Rebellion", or "The War for Southern Independence"? Do we have to call it "The American Civil War?" What perspective are we working from?
History cannot access one final, ultimate, singular truth. All we have to work from are the artifacts and narratives and memories of people. Not only are these memories faulty, but they were and are colored by individual experience, perspective, and bias. We need context to make our facts significant, but we must rely on the fallible human remnants to provide that context.
This drives some historians and archaeologists nuts. Some will even deny it and claim that they are able somehow to access real truth. Too bad for them they're wrong.
How Do We Learn History?
Because history is more than just a list of facts, hopefully I've convinced you that how we learn history and who teaches it makes a huge difference. Many people seem to believe that teaching history is bounded, somehow, by the classroom, and that the only time we learn history is in history class. That couldn't be farther from the truth. We do learn history in the classroom, and that the the obvious place to begin, but we also learn history from our media, our leaders, and our peers.
In the Classroom
How official history is taught in the classroom is fiercely contested, and for good reason. The first stories that children hear about history will build a foundation on which other things are hung - how we view America and its history will inform our views on race, gender, the labor movement, immigration, politics - you name it. A version of history constructed on the idea that racism has been eliminated will look very different from a version which points to continued oppression and disadvantage for POC.
You may have heard of the controversy over proposed changes to the Texas textbook curriculum. Briefly, the Texas Board of Education has outlined a list of new guidelines that must be applied to all social studies textbooks used in the state of Texas. Many non-conservative people are upset about these changes, which purport to eliminate the "liberal bias" from the history books.
"These [existing] standards are rife with leftist political periods and events: the populists, the progressives, the New Deal and the Great Society," [Texas Board of Education member Don] McLeroy wrote. "Including material about the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s provides some political balance to the document." (from here)
Oh no, not the New Deal! Quick, better teach children that the notorious communist witch hunt of McCarthyism has been "vindicated by history", and that women and POC should be "grateful" to those white men for giving us our rights!
These changes represent a big deal because Texas is a major textbook market (it's big, y'all), and major textbook distributors wouldn't want to spend money to produce textbooks that won't be used in Texas. Therefore, the argument goes, only textbooks that meet the new standards will be published even for states without a boatload of nuts on the Board of Education.
McLeroy and co. use what is currently a very popular approach to teaching a skewed historical perspective - they argue that they are providing the truth that others don't want you (and your kids) to know. Both liberal and conservative historians use this same argument - Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, by James W. Loewen, and A People's History of the United States, by Howard Zinn (both biased to the left), use this rhetoric just like (ugh) A Patriot's History of the United States: From Columbus' Great Discovery to the War on Terror, by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen.
Columbus' great discovery, huh? I guess you already know what my bias is without me having to tell you that you can read A People's History for free here.
And yes, a liberal perspective is skewed just like a conservative perspective. Neither tells the whole story, but I would argue that the "official" version of events most kids absorb is far closer to the one told in A Patriot's History than A People's History.
The classroom is a battleground because it is authoritative. An authority figure (the teacher, the textbook) provides an account that is all too often accepted uncritically. Unless the teacher encourages critical thinking and debate (as good teachers do, and we all know that those can be hard to find), and unless a student is actually plugged in and paying attention, they will absorb the text or lesson without questioning its message.
Even with a good teacher, the message will be biased in whatever direction the teacher leans. This is inevitable. It is impossible for us to eliminate bias, and (as a teacher I know this), it can be very difficult to allow free discussion without abusing one's authority. There have been many times when I think a student is wrong in their opinion, but I need to be careful in how I add my view to a conversation.
The major problem in classroom history education is when a single viewpoint is uncritically presented and uncritically absorbed.
In the Media
The media (gasp) is also biased! That may come as no big surprise to anyone who wonders how any Fox News personality is able to say "Fair and Balanced" without choking on the words. Yet most media programs (liberal and conservative) pretend that THEY are the unbiased ones, the ones providing the UNVARNISHED TRUTH. Remember, there is no truth, not when we're talking about history, and that includes the current events that are a part of history by the time the media gets around to talking about them.
History comprises the context by which we view the modern world, and so the media refers to history - directly or obliquely - constantly. Just to give one tiny example, think of the bickering inspired by any mention of the Founding Fathers. Which Father of America would support your right to have guns? To burn the flag? To separate church and state? Each side co-opts quotations from various Fathers to support their claims.
Who the hell CARES what the founding fathers thought? Who CARES if Jefferson would have disagreed with me about how we should regulate gun control? Just because it's Jefferson doesn't mean that he was RIGHT.
But, of course, that viewpoint never gets promoted. We continually lean on the authority of history to give weight to our position. Like the Tea Party and their idiotic YouTube videos using the names and likenesses of famous Patriots (if you can stomach it, you can watch this one where Thomas Paine argues against Multiculturalism).
(Oh, they're not racist. But I digress.)
Even if Paine would have agreed with that conclusion, so what? Why should we be enslaved to the dictums and viewpoints of a notoriously racist and sexist society? Why do we get so angry when Palin can't name a Founding Father (she's not THAT dumb, surely)?
American history is the foundation of our Myth of America. Each media outlet wants to privilege their own perspective within the niche they've carved for themselves, and even though it's nonsensical, He Who Can Prove The Founding Fathers Agreed With Him has a strong claim to have won the argument.
History in the media is often presented with an opposing viewpoint... edited like a Daily Show segment to make the other side look foolish. Even more than in the classroom, the media have a vested interest in proving that they have the TRUTH. In the melee, the voices of POC are often silenced, twisted, or absent. We're too busy arguing about what Madison would have thought (impossible to know). When the history of POC or other marginalized groups is presented, we make a big deal of it. (it's Black History Month***! Let's talk about Rosa Parks.)
From our Leaders and Peers
Just as history is the context through which the media presents their perspectives, so it is the context through which we live our daily lives. Every American knows the standard pantheon of historical figures (Franklin, Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Nixon, Hitler, etc). This does include some POC, women, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups (Rosa Parks, Pocahontas, Helen Keller, Sacajawea, Malcolm X).
(The media plays on this familiarity - see Glenn Beck giving a speech on the National Mall on the anniversary of King's "I have a dream" speech.)
We receive daily information on how we should view non-white, non-male dominated history in the way our leaders and peers use these people. For example, take the Helen Keller jokes. (Why can't Helen Keller drive a car? Because she's a woman! Yar har tee har har. There are many more of these.)
Helen Keller was a badass. Helen Keller was deaf, blind, and a woman, and lived in a time when the disabled were considered largely useless, with women not really that much better. Yet she learned to speak, read, and write. She was a committed author and lecturer and far more literate than many people I know who are both hearing and sighted. Her disability has nothing to do with her accomplishments, of course, but it means that she had to fight that much more stubbornly, work that much harder, in order to be taken seriously at all.
She was also a leftist, a Socialist, and a suffragist who fought for worker's rights. Her writing is passionate, intelligent, and devastatingly witty. Of voting, she said in 1911, "We vote? What does that mean? It means that we choose between two bodies of real, though not avowed, autocrats, we choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledee."
When the editor of the Brooklyn newspaper the Eagle argued that her socialism was a mistake, springing from "the manifest limitations of her development" (referring to her disability), she replied "It is not fair fighting or good argument to remind me and others that I cannot see or hear. I can read. I can read all the socialist books I have time for in English, German, and French. If the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle should read some of them, he might be a wiser man, and make a better newspaper."
I like Helen Keller quite a bit.
When was the last time you heard about Helen Keller as a socialist activist and leader? What do we hear about Helen Keller? We hear about her initial struggle to gain language, as if the story stopped there and she accomplished nothing more. Or we hear jokes that reduce her to a punchline. Who would suspect that Keller was anything but a blind and deaf woman who could speak, notable in the same way a trained monkey was notable? In this way, her history is whitewashed, and our history as a nation is made that much poorer.
Perhaps more than in any other medium, the history we absorb from our peers serves to reinforce the standard, whitewashed viewpoint. Firstly, because most people have a superficial viewpoint of most historical figures (like Helen Keller), and so when we access that cultural context we're merely trading ignorance with each other. Secondly, because we trade on our subconscious stereotypes and preconceptions of history, so that even when we learn something outside of that boundary, we treat it as an aberration.
Just the other day, I heard someone express surprise that a woman invented a piece of machinery that is now common in lumber mills. Yes, a woman! As it was explained, she was watching her husband work and wondered why he was getting so dirty, and she looked at her sewing machine to come up with a better system! Is that how it really happened, or is that the cutesy story we have invented to support our view of women's roles, and to suppress the idea that this woman had a serious (and probably untrained) talent for engineering?
Ok, so we absorb biased history from everywhere. How should we learn and teach history? This is getting a bit long, so I think we'll have to leave that for Part 3... soon to come.
*"I don't remember it." He wants you to know. "That's the way it was."
**Last time I chastised the Parks Service for their elimination of the Native American perspective from Mount Rushmore. They do MUCH better at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, both at the actual park and on their website. If you're ever in the area (it is in the middle of nowhere, closest town is Crow Agency, Montana, but still), it's worth a stop.
*** Black History Month. It's better than no black history at all, but it separates and segregates black history from regular history, that is, white history. If we lived in a non-racist society, we wouldn't have to have Black History Month.