“Americans see history as a straight line and themselves standing at the cutting edge as representatives for all mankind.” -Frances Fitzgerald, American Myth, American Reality
Early in my college career, perhaps in my freshman year, I took a course on American Culture which used James Oliver Robinson’s American Myth, American Reality as a textbook. I recorded the quote above in a journal of quotations I had just started collecting.
I thought of the quote again today when reading an article on revised AP U.S. history standards that will emphasize American exceptionalism. The revisions were championed by conservative educators and politicians who felt that the previously released standards presented too negative a view of the country. As Newsweek reported:
The Jefferson County school district in Colorado convened a board committee to review the curriculum, stating that all materials should promote “patriotism” and “respect for authority,” and “should not encourage or condone civil disorder.” The district stopped pursuing the review after hundreds of students walked out of classes in protest. The issue made it to the Republican National Committee, which passed a resolution accusing the AP U.S. framework of promoting “a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects,” and recommending that Congress withhold federal funding to the College Board pending a rewrite.
The squeaky wheel got the grease and the standards were revised again to try to make everyone on any side of the culture wars happy. One of the teachers who helped craft the redesign told Newsweek that their goal was to remove value judgments from the framework, and let facts speak for themselves.
Of course, history is not made up of “facts” the way mathematics is. History is made up of things that happened in the past between people of different cultures, ideologies, mindsets, and goals trying to survive cold winters, get enough to eat, and to live in society with one another. In the process they trade with one another, come up with economic systems, work, raise children, invent things, create art, fight over resources, practice religions, question their religions and prevailing philosophies, consider different elements of society part of the in-group or the out-group, they invent governing systems and sometimes become migrants or have wars. No nation ever was made up of people of a single mindset. Lots of things happened. Lots of people had lives that impacted other lives. Lots of people had perspectives. Out of the almost infinite pool of “things that happened” a historian must select certain things on which to focus.
For this reason the idea of history being “revisionist” is problematic. Rarely do our educators try to “revise” history by completely changing what happened, for example, saying the first president of the United States was not George Washington but Hiram Rodriguez. “Revisionist” histories are histories that focus on different aspects of the past.
The histories that we read in the good old days never did include all that happened to my ancestors and your ancestors in all its messy and wondrous complexity. Historians ave to leave out of their stories all manner of events and people. Early history text writers in the United States chose a patriotic narrative about an America whose ancestry is European, not Native American, Latino or Black. They chose to tell a story that focused on military and economic success with heroes from those realms. The past was already revised by these historians not to include the history of the card game whist, basket weaving, the story of some guy named Oziah who worked hard and followed the rules then died, changes in the way people have conceptualized love, slavery from the perspective of the enslaved, the War of 1812 from the Native American perspective, the biographies of all the people who ran for President and failed, nor did they choose to frame the account of the history of commerce and politics as background to a central narrative on the important business of creating art and culture or raising children or to begin the story of America in the mid-1800s with the first major wave of Jewish immigration. These are all stories that could have been told.
These days when people start fighting about how history should be taught to children, they largely argue about whose perspective should be included and who should be considered part of “us.” Is focusing on Civil Disobedience saying that America is bad and authority should be resisted or is it saying that African-Americans and working class laborers who staged sit ins are part of the American “us” and therefore events that were significant to African-Americans and the working poor are significant to us as Americans?
What rarely gets challenged, however, is the straight line narrative of American history. This can be summed up in the popular political poll question “Do you think the country is headed in the right direction?” The assumption is that history is a journey from something to something else. People on the left are more apt to see social change as progress (hence the label progressive) whereas conservatives are more apt to worry that social change is the beginning of a slippery downward slope to a chaotic society. What they have in common is that they see history as heading in a direction.
One of the sticking points in the AP framework debate was the interpretation of “manifest destiny.” Should it be presented in a positive light? What was a gain for the European settlers was a loss for the Native Americans. In either case, the underlying notion that there was something inevitable about this change is essentially intact. This is not the only way to view history. Richard Nisbett wrote in The Geography of Thought:
Japanese teachers begin with setting the context of a given set of events in some detail. They then proceed through the important events in chronological order, linking each event to its successor. Teachers encourage their students to imagine the mental and emotional states of historical figures by thinking about the analogy between their situations and situations of the students’ everyday lives. The actions are then explained in terms of these feelings. Emphasis is put on the “initial” event that serves as the impetus to subsequent events. Students are regarded as having good ability to think historically when they show empathy with the historical figures, including those who were Japan’s enemies. “How” questions are asked frequently— about twice as often as in American classrooms. American teachers spend less time setting the context than Japanese teachers do. They begin with the outcome, rather than with the initial event or catalyst. The chronological order of events is destroyed in presentation. Instead, the presentation is dictated by discussion of the causal factors assumed to be important (“ The Ottoman empire collapsed for three major reasons”). Students are considered to have good ability to reason historically when they are capable of adducing evidence to fit their causal model of the outcome.
What happened is the only thing that could have happened, and our job is to recognize is the road that got us there.
Thus, Nisbett writes “The fall of the Roman Empire, the rise of the Third Reich, and the American success in reaching the moon before the Russians, not to mention less momentous events, are routinely seen as inevitable by commentators, who, one strongly suspects, could not have predicted them.”
A month or so ago, you may recall, I ran a guest post by author Juliet Greenwood about her World War I novel “We That Are Left.” The article focused on the largely forgotten role of women on the battlefield. The introduction to the post also pointed out that female writers outsold their male counterparts in the Victorian era and that women owned a large number of businesses in Colonial America. Why do these facts come as a surprise? I suspect it is that these historical facts interfere with a nice seamless narrative about linear progress.
It is much easier to tell the dramatic story of increasing freedom for women– a straight line from corsets and arranged marriages to women’s suffrage, 1970s women’s lib, and then Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton and female CEOs– if you leave out the women of previous ages who did the things we imagine they only later gained the right to do.