Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Why The Oklahoma History Wars Matter

I wonder if Ida B. Wells-Barnett's crusade against lynching is "too negative" to be taught in Oklahoma, a state where 40 black men were lynched

Every year I start my American history survey off with a discussion of the controversies surrounding the teaching of the subject.  The students usually get really engaged, and it certainly gives the topic some immediacy to show how it has become a political battleground. Recent years have provided a wealth of examples, from Texas to Colorado.  Now Oklahoma is getting in on the act with legislation that would not only ban the teaching of Advanced Placement US History in the schools, but mandate that 58 specific documents be taught, including three Reagan speeches and the Ten Commandments.  Evidently the AP curriculum, which is written by eggheads in New York City, is too negative in its take on American history for Oklahoma's taste.

It would be easy to laugh this off as another example of red state conservatives engaging in the usual culture war script, or a sideshow to more pressing issues.  I think that would be a mistake, because the attempt to influence how children are taught about their nation's history has enormous implications.  If students are taught that their nation has always been great and just, they will think that embodies these qualities in the present.  If they are taught that America was on the right side of every war, they will not resist new calls to arms.  If struggles for racial, economic, and gender equality don't appear to exist in the past, they won't seem all that important for the present, either.  If redlining and residential segregation never appear in the unit on postwar America students will be prone to seeing ghettoes as natural and unintentional, and their denizens to be unworthy of empathy.

One reason I love history so much is that it provides a trenchant standpoint of critique, and that's what makes it so dangerous for those invested in the status quo.  I still remember the subversive feelings of confusion I had when I first read actual historical accounts of the middle ages and Reformation, when I learned that that Catholic church's past was very different from what it had led me to believe.  I felt much the same reading Malcolm X's biography during study hall in junior year, realizing the fatuousness of the version of American history that had been foisted on me.  The defenders of the status quo, whether it be in church or politics, had used their distortions of the past to give themselves an air of infallibility, and now I knew just how wrong that was.

Historical knowledge is the greatest bullshit detector of them all.  Calls for the newest war don't look so inspiring once you know America's imperial past.  The slayings of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner don't look so random and accidental if you know the history of racist violence undertaken by the authorities against people of color.  Scorched earth libertarianism looks mighty stupid if you know how that worked out the first time during the Gilded Age.

There is a very powerful segment of society that relies on the masses being ignorant of a broader, more historical perspective on the present.  To the teachers of Oklahoma with the guts to give your students the real thing, straight no chaser despite your state government's mandate, I salute you.  If they want to assign Reagan speeches, make sure they read the ones full of dog whistle race baiting.  If they want students to read the Ten Commandments, then you can keep reminding students of the times that our leaders have broken them, from the Ludlow Massacre to the Trail of Tears.  What is Western Expansion but murder, theft, and the coveting others' goods?

1 comment:

Terry said...

Concur 100%. The one, faint ray of hope is that nowadays we have the Internets. It's possible a student can find out the other versions of those stories independently. Hell *I* managed to do that in the 60s and there was no internet. There was, however, a well- and broadly-stocked public library...