The unintended beauty of sanitized history lessons


Asheville Citizen-Times, March 18, 2006 

A schedule conflict will prevent me from participating in the protest rally (March 19th, Pack Square, 2-4 pm) marking the anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. I'll be sorry to miss it. Though the escalating costs of the occupation are causing more people to reconsider support for the war, some passersby will still bristle at the demonstration. They'll see it as yet another unpatriotic spectacle. I hope they will take the opportunity of their discomfort to reflect on a dilemma in the teaching of American history.

Take me for example. Cynical as I've become, I still believe in a vision of America as the beacon on a hill. America means freedom, justice, fair play, truth, creativity, hard work, and a helping hand for the less fortunate. If nothing else, I'm a caution to Lynne Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, and others who advocate the teaching of what amounts to a Chamber of Commerce version of the American saga.

During the 1960s you couldn't have found a closer approximation of contemporary right thinking than my family and the fundamentalist Church of Christ we attended without fail three times per week. My parents were Goldwater Republicans who believed in state's rights. The John Birch Society sent us mail. We read Ayn Rand approvingly. In high school I was a Young American For Freedom. I feared hell because of dirty thoughts. (The corresponding deeds being, at that time, beyond my reach.)

I was taught a classic midwestern 1950s version of American history. Columbus discovered America. The settlers fought the wilderness, Indians, and the British to establish our country. We bravely moved westward, meeting every challenge from the terrain, more Indians, and Mexico. We fought a war to keep the Union together and incidentally abolished slavery. We boldly innovated our way into an industrial powerhouse. In the 20th century, we twice rescued Europe from itself. Then we assumed the mantle of global defender against the totalitarian communist threat. Bomb or no bomb, I was proud to be an American.

It was a history sanitized to the point of caricature and appallingly eurocentric. Still, for a white kid, it wasn't all bad. It was good to believe in the virtue of my country and myself as a citizen of it. But that vision of America had another--some may think less desirable--effect on me as well. It produced an idealist.

Though I know better, I can't shake the American spirit I absorbed as a kid. When my country behaves with monumental incompetence or cruelty, when it lies, cheats, cons, and abuses people and resources on an industrial scale, it hits me in the conscience. My American heroes, from Patrick Henry and Davy Crockett to Rosa Parks and Edward R. Murrow, expect me to stand and fight.

Had I known in my youth that Columbus drooled over the prospect of Caribbean Indian slaves, mistreatment of the weak might seem less heinous to me now. Had my sixth grade teacher not been alone in his observation that, "The United States never got any land we didn't take by force or screw somebody out of," Iraq might reduce to a question of pragmatics. If I'd known that the battle cries, "Remember The Maine" and "Remember the Lusitania" were misrepresentations, possibly shameless ones, used to sell unpopular wars, the present administration's assertions about WMD and implications about Saddam's involvement with 9/11 might not rankle so. 

But I wasn't taught those things. Nor did I hear about the less than admirable business practices of John D. Rockefeller or the pre-WWII fascist sympathies of Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh. So I didn't grow up practiced in the ability to look the other way when it is to my advantage or that of the United States.

And there's the rub for those who want to feed kids a happy-face American history. When you reinforce an idealistic education with firm ideas of right and wrong, you have to expect some adults like the ones demonstrating in Pack Square.

If the idea is to produce "My country right or wrong" team players, people whose patriotism is an extension of school or family loyalty, rethink the teaching strategy. Loyalty doesn't depend on idealization. Kids learn early that parents are sometimes wrong, maybe even bad. Ditto for school officials. But hey, warts and all it's my family, my school.

Here's a modest suggestion for those who will shake their heads disapprovingly at the protesters on the 19th. Insist that American history books and teachers lose the idealistic gloss. Make sure kids learn the dark side of our national story along with the good. They'll grow up more loyal to the reality on the ground.

—Michael Hopping
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