I remember when I was in my master’s program, my advisor at the time sent me an op-ed written by famed historian Mary Beth Norton from Cornell University. A highly acclaimed author and women’s historian who wrote about the Salem Witch Trials, I have met her on two occasions. Norton’s op-ed described a 2006 education law passed by the Florida state legislature mandating that history should be taught “as factual, not constructed.” Norton rightfully pointed out that this was a false dichotomy because all history, in fact, requires interpretation (or construction) and cannot just be exclusively about facts. Last fall, Julie Williams of the Jefferson County school district in Colorado got a lot of negative media attention for trying to unduly slant the AP US History curriculum toward “patriotism” and away from “civil disobedience.” Lots of academic historians and others pointed out that the founding of the country was conceived in civil disobedience and that the nation made great strides through civil disobedience in the Civil Rights era. Students protested and amplified their concerns on television. The American Historical Association voiced its disapproval. Meanwhile, a proposed West Virginia law said that teachers could face fines if they discuss “social problems, economics, foreign affairs, the United Nations, world government, socialism or communism” before discussing America’s founding. And then of course there’s good ole Texas, a state whose rabid, evangelical anti-intellectualism is so glaring that it pretty much embarrasses every sane American. Examples of Lone Start State politicians meddling in the curriculum are too numerous to mention here.
What is going on here, America??!! Have we completely lost our minds??!! The fact that many of these laws are being passed in southern states is noteworthy. They still perpetrate a lot of misleading information about the Civil War down there. But I’ll save that for another blog post. For now, let me make some general comments about what I see at the heart of the matter.
I have been a student and professor of history for enough years to keep track of common refrains from the political right about how American history should be taught. At the risk of generalizing, what I often hear are the following: The US is, and has always been, exceptional; we’re a beacon of liberty for the rest of the world to follow; we were founded as a religious and gun-loving country; in almost every war we’ve fought, we have been the good guys and if you criticize the war, you are dishonoring the brave sacrifices of the troops, you're "un-American," you’re a subversive, an “agitator,” or even worse, you are a godless communist! OMG!
I would call this the GI Joe version of history; at other times I’ve called it the Disney version. GI Joe was a cartoon show I watched as a kid. So the GI Joe version is one that is dumbed down, simplified, black-and-white, moralistic, and intended for children. We might even call it pro-US propaganda. The more mature approach to American history, I think, is to look at the wars in which the United States has committed grave errors, and then moving forward, to try to learn from them so that they don’t happen again. This goes for the Spanish-American War as conducted in the Philippines (where we tortured and burned down entire villages), Vietnam, Iraq, and a lot of other conflicts. This is what adults do. Adults recognize mistakes, apologize, and then move on. Don't we raise our children to say "sorry" when they commit a mistake? Mitt Romney’s book title, when running for president, was No Apologies. When faced with a tough question, just sing “America the Beautiful”! So we see conservatives don’t even want you to uncover those unpleasant truths in history because they are somehow “against the troops.” I find this not-so-veiled attempt to shut down the conversation maddeningly simplistic and tribal. Aren’t we better than that? Do we really want our citizens to be the equivalent of a spoiled kid who throws a tantrum every time he doesn’t get what he wants?
We can even uncover problematic assumptions in the word "patriotism" itself. The etymology of the word relates to the “father” as in traditional gender norms. You obey your country as you would obey your father...unquestioningly...unthinkingly.... But haven’t we moved beyond such traditional modes of masculinity? What else explains the sea change in public support for gay marriage? Patriotism is often touted benevolently as pride in your country. What could possibly be wrong with this, one might ask? But if taken too far, patriotism ends up being divisive and leads to an us-versus-them mentality. It ends up promoting conformity and group-think. The Treaty of Versailles is only one of many examples of the immense pitfalls of excessive nationalism and pride in one's country. The violence and revenge never really ends. Interestingly, one synonym in the dictionary for patriot is “jingoist” and students who have seen my lecture on the Spanish-American War will know what this means. These are hardly laudable values and I dare say that the line between benign patriotism and destructive patriotism is fine and easy to cross. I also say “patriotism” in quotes because those who wave the flag so fervently are often, in reality, supporting policies that do the exact opposite of what they’re intending; that is, in the case of Vietnam and Iraq, the policies they advocate are a detriment to the country; not a benefit. Flag-waving, God-fearing "patriots" see absolutely no sense of irony or contradiction.
And finally, another common critique of patriotism is that it promotes conformity. Rather than think for ourselves, we seem to follow the mobs under patriotism, almost like sheep. But thinking about this more, we come to an interesting conclusion. The individualist critique of conformity is by no means a radical critique; far from it. Individualism means a lot of different things depending on the context, but on a philosophical level, it’s very much an Enlightenment concept. The autonomous individual was one who could think for himself using the laws of reason, rationality, and logic. This is what Newton, Locke, Smith, Hume, and others wanted. We could use scientific principles to critique organized religion, divine right of kings, corrupt protectionism, and therefore arrive at the "invisible hand" of the so-called "free-market." But I thought conservatives loved the free market? This is hardly a Marxist critique, then, despite all those misplaced and misunderstood accusations of “Marxism.” So what patriotism amounts to, then, is essentially a pre-Enlightenment mentality. I hope people realize that the next time they go to a sports stadium and cheer on their local team.
But back to teaching history…What’s stunningly sad here is that so many Americans seem to yearn for this GI Joe version of history in spite of such obvious and overwhelming evidence to the contrary. They want a feel-good, romanticized, saccharine narrative that glorifies and deifies the Founding Fathers. In essence, they want a Disney movie in front of the classroom. Want to talk about George Washington or Thomas Jefferson? Heaven forbid that we talk about their slaves or the ways in which both of them protected the interests of slaveholders. No, on the political right today, there’s always a need for a story with a hero, even when the political and moral circumstances surrounding that narrative are questionable at best (think of the recent Clint Eastwood film American Sniper, starring Bradley Cooper). Better kill those Iraqis over there so they don't come and fight us over here! But why do we always need a hero? To the extent that history should be teaching us about real life, isn’t real life often more complicated than having a hero and villain?
In addition to having philosophical and epistemological objections to using history to promote patriotism, I just don’t think it’s that helpful or enlightening in a college classroom. College should be many things, but one of them, I believe, is an opportunity to systematically critique the larger forces we encounter every day. If we promote patriotism and the so-called “free market,” then we’re really just reinforcing what churches, sports events, television, and a lot of other media are constantly and subliminally forcing down our throats.
Now…on the subjects of race, class, and gender, another boogeyman of the political right. Here my views have a bit of nuance. I wouldn’t say that I have research expertise in these areas, but agree that they should be part of any class and in fact, form a central part of my own classes. Slavery is a major theme in my class, especially when it comes to primary sources. Embedded within the conservative worldview is a nostalgia for the 1950s; when, seemingly, things were “good” and “there were no problems” and “America was great.” Aside from being ahistorical and just not true, what should be emphasized here is that the battle over race, class, and gender was fought long ago! Way before I was born! It’s like birth control, that ship has sailed! Race, class, and gender are legitimate fields of inquiry. Discussing the American Revolution by only talking about the Founding Fathers is not an inclusive narrative. A narrative without slaves, Indians, women, and poor whites is thoroughly incomplete. It’s time to move on.
If conservatives wish to be taken seriously and participate in a good-faith dialogue, rather than being ridiculed, lampooned, and derided by most academics, they need to ask themselves some very tough questions in which they may not like the answer: what do you do to your worldview when the evidence you uncover doesn’t fit with your worldview? Do you make adjustments to the worldview or do you stubbornly cling to nostalgia and fantasy? Finally, what are conservative parents really afraid of when they blister at "liberal" teachers exposing them to "un-American" values? That their child might develop the skills to question the next counterproductive war we launch in the Middle East? That their child might question what their pastor has told them about a literal, fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible? That their children learn that the US has been, for over the last twenty years, the world’s foremost military superpower and economic hegemon, with some 500 military bases in some 170 countries; that we spend more on our military than the next 10-15 countries combined?
I cringe for the society that prevents us from asking these all-important, philosophical questions in the classroom...