History or Propaganda?

You’ve probably all read about the flap over teaching history in the public schools in Jefferson County, Colorado, which includes portions of West Denver and extends up into the mountains: teacher “sick-outs,” student walk-outs, and the like.

Since the issue is so deeply politicized as a Left-Right issue, it would take a lot more time and investigative journalism skills than I possess to cut through all the yelling and get to the bottom of it, but my understanding is that there was a relatively recent rightward political shift in the makeup of the Jefferson County school board, and they decided to make changes to the curriculum to bring it more in line with a right-wing outlook, claiming (of course) that they are merely counteracting a left-wing shift foisted on them through the Common Core curriculum.

The crux of the matter is that the new school board thinks that history should be taught in a more pro-American, patriotic fashion.

I have a few observations.

First, I attended public elementary school in the 1960’s, and high school in the early 1970’s. I attended school in a town of 50,000 people, with a military base, in the West. My elementary textbooks were published in the 1950’s, and in high school, we might have been getting textbooks written in the early 1960’s. I grew up in the days when even Hollywood was putting out blockbusters like Stagecoach and How the West Was Won; television aired shows like Combat and The Untouchables; we recited the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, facing the American Flag with our right hands over our hearts.

I can only assume that returning to this is the right-wing educator’s dream. What I can say as someone who experienced it, is that it instilled in me an utter contempt for most of the “history” I was taught. Even at the time, I knew it was propaganda, and I was under ten years old. Kids are smarter than educators think they are, particularly when it comes to detecting that people are lying to them.

One of the first shocks I remember was learning that the US had burned “undesirable” books in the 1950’s during the McCarthy hysteria. We’d heard plenty of stories about how horrible the Nazis were during WWII, which included (of course) the concentration camps and the book burnings. We’d never heard a single word about book burnings in the US, and it was unthinkable that the US would behave anything like the Nazis, especially as recently as ten years before I was in elementary school. When I found out that we’d been burning books, just like the Nazis, I felt horribly betrayed. When I learned, much later, of our concentration camps for Japanese-Americans, I was already so disillusioned I just shrugged and said, “It figures.”

It’s what I call a Santa Claus moment: parents spend years lying to kids about Santa Claus, and then one day the kids figure out that there is no Santa Claus. It’s a realization that serves only to destroy trust in adults and their stories.

So, why teach history in public school at all? Reading skill has self-evident merit, given the disadvantages an illiterate adult faces in such everyday activities as getting a driver’s license, or applying for a job. Basic math skills are needed to balance a checkbook, or count money, or buy enough seed to plant a field. But history? What is the point?

One reason, which the right-wing educators of the 1950’s and the right-wing educators of the 2010’s seem to understand, is acculturation — or socialization, or brainwashing if you prefer, but it’s an important part of living and working in any community. If you want to have a nation, you need a national identity: no national identity, no nation.

If you want to be a physicist, for instance, you have to know how to think like a physicist, which means you accept what Thomas Kuhn called a paradigm: a collection of problems, solutions, methods, stories, and outlooks that all physicists hold in common. You can walk up to any physicist, anywhere, and ask, “Is momentum conserved?” and he will answer, “Yes.” It’s part of the physics paradigm, and it takes long years to learn the entire canon.

Likewise, you can walk up to any Evangelical Christian, anywhere, and ask, “Is Jesus Lord and Savior?” and he will answer, “Yes.” It’s part of the Evangelical paradigm.

So it’s important to be able to walk up to any American, anywhere, and ask “{…}?” and have him answer, “Yes.” That’s what collective identity means. I get that, as well as the fact that people don’t come to this “paradigm” by themselves — they have to be taught, whether it’s on Grandma’s knee, or in church, or in school, or on the job.

History and mythology are traditionally how this teaching is done, going all the way back to tribal societies of a dozen adults and a few children. History is a story of the past that informs the questions, “Who are we, how did we get here, why are we still here, how should we live?” It’s a story, not a random collection of disconnected facts. It has a beginning, a middle, and it ends with this time, this place, you and me, and then extends into some kind of future. It has themes, and a plot. It carries values, hopes, and beliefs.

It isn’t a bunch of dates and events that you dump in front of a bunch of kids, like Lego blocks, and tell them to “make up their own minds.” That’s absurd. You tell a story that says, “This is what it means to be a citizen of the United States — this is our paradigm.”

It’s an extremely biased story. And that’s just fine. I get that.


The story, if it impinges on reality at all, has to be congruent with reality.

You could easily create a physics paradigm in which the Earth is flat and is fixed at the center of the universe, momentum is not conserved, and the sun returns from Winter Solstice only because of our prayers and drumming. Such physicists would not get very far with their studies, since this paradigm is simply wrong — meaning that it purports to say things about the physical universe, which do not match what the physical universe is actually like.

Similarly, when we teach a slanted version of history that is seriously incongruent with what actually happened, or with what is really important, it will lead to huge problems when we encounter the rest of the world.

I’ll give a simple, perhaps inflammatory example.

Why was the World Trade Center attacked in 2001?

Let’s not argue about what really happened, let’s just go with the “official story” of Al Qaeda operatives armed with box-cutters taking over the planes and flying them into the buildings. For this story to make sense as a story, these operatives need a motive. What is their motive?

Ask a hundred US Americans that question, and you’ll be lucky to find even one who can express a single plausible motive for the attack. The only thing most people will be able to provide is some variant on, “They were evil men,” which was the simplistic boogeyman the Bush administration pushed for six years. As we all know, “evil men” do things purely for the sake of being “evil” — their actions don’t have to make any sense, because they aren’t really men, they’re demons encased in flesh, and no one knows what demons are thinking. They’re just “evil.”

US Americans cannot articulate why any foreign national would hate the US enough to want to bring down an office building in the US with people in it, much less why they picked the World Trade Center as opposed to, say, the Brooklyn Bridge, or the Statue of Liberty. In fact, the WTC was a highly specific target — if you recall, it had been hit with a bomb in the parking garage in 1993, again by “Middle Eastern terrorists.” They weren’t after just Americans — they were after that building. Why?

Understanding anything about the hatred the United States has engendered in various parts of the world, and the role the WTC played as a symbol in that hatred, requires pulling aside some of the curtains of “patriotic, uplifting” history that we teach our young and taking a long, hard look at the seamy side of the United States. Even worse, it’s not just about history — it’s about ongoing US policy. Stuff we’re supposed to be aware of in a democracy, so that we can vote for it — or against it.

There’s a huge Santa Claus moment lurking here.

I want to emphasize again, the problem with Santa Claus moments is that they destroy trust. If you destroy trust, you destroy loyalty. If you destroy loyalty — well, what is the point of “patriotism” if it isn’t backed by loyalty and trust?

Let me offer a different example that almost got someone killed.

A year or so ago, a friend sent around a first-person story about being a petroleum engineer in the late 1970’s, traveling in Egypt under a work visa. He had a guide with him who spoke the language, and one day, in Cairo, two angry men approached and began shouting at him. The guide managed to calm them down, and they went away. The guide then told the man he had just saved him from being kidnapped and murdered for being an American, by lying about his nationality. Later that week, an American student was killed, and his mutilated body was dropped off in front of the US Embassy.

This man could not conceive how these two men, two total strangers, could possibly hate him enough to murder him. He then segued awkwardly into thanking the US Marines posted in Egypt at the time for the protection they offered.

Let’s take this story at face value.

Apart from the fact that his guide saved him, not the US Marines, this highly-educated American engineer was at a complete loss to explain his brush with death. He clearly did not understand that these US Marines were most likely the reason his life was in danger.

From 1956 to 2011, Egypt had three presidents — Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak. All three were dictators, with increasingly corrupt and oppressive regimes. Mubarak was eventually ousted in the Arab Spring uprising when the populace, joined by the Egyptian military, forced him out of power.

All three regimes would have been thrown out much sooner, but for one thing: US military support. Those US Marines did not have boots on the ground in Egypt to protect American citizens. They were there to protect the Egyptian government, and every Egyptian who even briefly thought of overthrowing their own corrupt government, looked at the US Marines and thought, “Maybe we could take these guys out, but then what?”

Egyptians saw the corrupt Egyptian government and the US Marines as pretty much the same thing. They hated the US because they hated their own government. They hated their government because it was abusing them.

It’s worth noting that the event that triggered the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt was a shopkeeper who, having finally had enough of the personal abuses he had faced from his government, sat down in the middle of the street, poured gasoline over his head, and set himself on fire. I’d like anyone reading this blog to spend thirty seconds contemplating how bad things have to get for someone to even think of doing this. It was that bad under Mubarak. It was maybe a little less bad under Sadat, and Nasser was before my time.

The US supported these regimes. With money. With boots on the ground.

I would say that this US-educated petroleum engineer had been done a profound disservice by a poor education, a disservice that nearly got him killed. His education left him unequipped to handle himself in the world; it left him completely unequipped to process what had happened to him.

Matters are a little different these days. I have friends who travel abroad and claim they are Canadian, or from New Zealand, to avoid trouble. I have personally never had a problem as an American, but I’ve never ventured into truly dangerous waters.

If we’re going to educate our children at all, it needs to be an education that is congruent with the reality they are going to face in the world.

Exactly when do we pull back the curtains and look at the seamy side of US history in all its ugliness? I think there are two answers to that question.

On the one hand, we have to start on Day One: we do not want to lie at any point. The idea of a lie is also a lot simpler than cynical adults want to make it: it means, we don’t want to tell a child anything today that is going to destroy trust when they hear the full story later. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for twisted evasions about what is “technically” true. If it breaks trust down the road, it was a lie, even if it was mostly true.

On the other hand, we don’t need to paint a bleak picture for first-graders. Or even fifth graders. But we’d better have covered the bases by eighth grade, which is where mandatory education ends in (I think) every state, certainly in Colorado, and if the kids can’t handle reality in high school and college, their entire “education” was a fraud, anyway.

We’re moving into a new century, and a new era. The US is still on top of the world, but the tide has changed directions. We’re not likely to be King of the World in 2100. Not unless something completely unexpected happens.

How we come down from our high throne is going to depend a lot on the history we teach our coming generations.

If we go back to the simplistic, self-congratulatory “patriotic” model I experienced while growing up, we’re laying the ground for increasingly jarring Santa Claus moments. It isn’t going to promote patriotism, but rather cynicism and disgust. I’ve read that Niccolò Machiavelli — eponymous originator of the idea of “Machiavellian intrigue” — was in his youth an idealist and a strong supporter of the Florentine republic. It was only after the death of Lorenzo di Medici and the fall of the republic into the fanatical hands of Girolamo Savonarola, that Machiavelli became cynical and bitter, and penned his famous work, The Prince.

He, too, apparently had a Santa Claus moment.

As empires go, the United States really hasn’t been all that terrible, though part of that is that we figured out a way to do with a fountain pen what most empires had to do with a sword. But we’ve made deadly enemies, and they have damned good reasons to hate us. How we fare in our senescence as an empire is going to depend a lot on humility, and true humility begins with self-knowledge.

That said, the United States has also been a forerunner and a shining example of great things, many of which are as unique as a Beethoven symphony or a Renoir painting. It would also be a mistake to lose sight of that in the midst of our self-criticism.

But we are going to have to face the truth about ourselves. If we don’t, it will be rubbed in our faces, and there’s no reason to believe it will be done gently.

This entry was posted in General.

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