“What is history, but a fable agreed upon?” — Napoleon Bonaparte
I wasn’t surprised by President Donald Trump’s election-season call last week for schools to “teach our children the magnificent truth about our country” while, at the same time, denouncing the “ideological poison” of “left-wing indoctrination.” It seemed on brand. So, too, did his announcement of something called the 1776 Commission, which would promote “patriotic education” in schools by offering a “pro-American curriculum that celebrates the truth about our nation’s great history.”
That’s a subjective order for what is really a highly subjective realm in the first place. History may not necessarily be a “fable agreed upon” — or “written by the victors,” as another statement (credited to many people) declares — but, to varying degrees and shades, it does often reside in the eye of the beholder and the perspective of the historian.
What apparently set the president off in this instance is the 1619 Project, a highly controversial New York Times Magazine package issued last year that examines the story of America through the lens of slavery and its consequences on U.S. life. California is reportedly integrating the project into its school curriculum. Trump also took issue with the widely-used 1980 textbook “A People’s History of the United States,” written by socialist author Howard Zinn, which uses a “bottom-up approach to history, as an alternative to telling the story of the U.S. via the top-down achievements of elite white men,” according to Time magazine’s website.
The president said he wants to “reclaim our history” with a curriculum that, in effect, sands the blemishes from the narrative and instead gleams with the nation’s glories in order to teach kids “to love America with all of their heart and all of their soul.” References to systemic racism would presumably not be a big part of these studies.
The propagandist tone aside, the president’s vision probably wouldn’t leave much room for critical assessments of our nation’s past, nor would it likely allow for the vast diversity of opinions and conflicting perspectives, which are also part of the American story, to receive a lot of attention.
After reading Trump’s comments, I wondered how schools might deal, for instance, with Wounded Knee.
In December 1890, U.S. Cavalry troops rounded up Lakota people on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota; they were mostly (but not completely) unarmed. According to some accounts, a gun reportedly discharged by accident, which unleashed a chaos of gunfire in which more than 250 Lakota men, women and children were killed, as were 25 soldiers.
When I was a student in a South Dakota school, we were taught that this incident was a “battle.” This was the accepted, longstanding view, even to the point where 20 soldiers involved in the action received Medals of Honor. The actual site, which contains a mass grave of the Lakota dead, was called the “Wounded Knee Battlefield” and was designated as a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
But we eventually came to see this incident as a terrible massacre. In 1990, Congress acknowledged this evolution by overwhelmingly passing a resolution expressing “deep regret” over the event.
So, in the name of “patriotic education,” how does one teach Wounded Knee, which remains a key event in early South Dakota history, to students? Is it portrayed as a tragic wrong in our past, or will it revert back to being regarded as a battle? And how would that latter approach work for both white students and Native American students, who would understandably have different ancestral perspectives on the topic?
The same goes for this nation’s internment of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps during World War II. President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1942 executive order in the wake of Pearl Harbor stands as an unfortunate chapter in our history as our government incarcerated 120,000 civilians because of their race. Would this topic be off-limits as “unpatriotic”?
Of course, the Civil War presents all sorts of teaching conundrums. Do we stick with the gallant “lost cause” narrative that cleanses the Confederate aims to preserve slavery and leave the Union? Do we acknowledge that this nation long permitted/accommodated the ownership and dehumanization of a race of people? Or, see Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution, drafted in 1787, which provided for the counting of a southern slave (i.e., “those bound to Service for a Term of Years”) as three-fifths of a person for census and taxation purposes — which apparently isn’t systemic racism, even though it was written right into the blueprint for our system of government. The 14th Amendment eventually righted this wrong — 81 years later.
If we dismiss such imperfect elements from our history, it brings to mind another old saying about those who forget history being condemned to relive it.
A marvelous attribute about America is its willingness sometimes to look at itself bluntly — the good as well as the bad, the glorious and the tragic — and learn from it. Ultimately, confronting our own mistakes makes us better, wiser and stronger.
Our historical imperfections are also at the core of the Constitution’s lofty vision of a “more perfect union” — born of a less perfect one — that we will always aspire to achieve. Part of that aspiration is learning from our own errors and missteps.
This brings me to one final remark, from a 19th century German immigrant named Carl Schurz, who once said of his adopted American homeland, “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.” The latter is essential to the former. And that fact is the most patriotic and practical education we can impart to the future of our republic.
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