Friday, October 14, 2011

Lies My History Teacher Told Me: American History Edition

When I was in junior high, the Social Studies classes we took focused on American history. Now, the events are pretty standard: The Bering Strait. Native Americans. Jamestown. The Pilgrims. 1776. The American Revolution. The Constitution.

The personalities are indisputable, too: Washington. Jefferson. Franklin. Madison. Lincoln.

History is not just dates, battles and events. It's not just things that happened in olden times and long dead rich white men making decisions that we now have to live with. History is also about biases and perception, different connections and angles.

As an example, a slight digression:
In high school, in the one day it took in AP World History to cover World War One (because we were running out of time), we came upon Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points, which later became the basis for the League of Nations (which was the prototype for the United Nations). One of the bits in the Points was about nations under colonial rule having the right to self-determine their freedom.

That's wonderful, if you lived in the Balkans, Austria-Hungary or the many European colonies of Africa. Not so wonderful if you lived in Ireland, which at the time was ruled by Great Britain. In order to not offend Britain, whose ally the U.S. was in the war, Wilson did not support Ireland's efforts to gain its independence during this time.

I suppose that being Allies and Wilson considering Ireland a "British internal matter" would fly with some, but when you're descended from ardent Irish-Catholics (some of whom fought for the Americans in the War and then scurried back to Ireland to fight in its War of Independence)...I didn't exactly buy what the teacher was trying to impress upon us.

See what I mean about biases?

Anyway. That junior high textbook was written oddly. Instead of being a straight narrative of Americana, with pictures, maps and graphs, it felt the need to dissect most major events or eras from the perspectives of "women" or "blacks" or "slaves" or "immigrants."It would tell you about the event or era, then tell it all over again, like a bad version of Rashomon, from the perspective of Women and on down the minorities list.

Basically, it sucked to be an American woman. And it was even worse to be a slave. And all Americans hated immigrants.

I don't object to the effort of trying to tell history from a mixture of perspectives. It's the generalizations of those perspectives that I couldn't stand, because just as today America is a teeming mess of too many opinions, not every woman would have experienced the suffrage movement or the Civil War or the Industrial Revolution in the same way either. And of course, education isn't about teaching anymore, but learning by rote enough to pass a test/ write a report and pass the class/ pass 8th grade.

I also remember this book trying to illustrate "daily life" for the average American at whatever time or event we were reading about. First of all, that is impossible to distill into four paragraphs. Second, while I find daily life details interesting (perhaps even more interesting than the larger events themselves), once again, it was too general.

This is the textbook that taught me (though I knew better) that the French won our Revolutionary War. Or that the British were big bad meanies for burning down the White House during the War of 1812. Or that the Mormons were worthy of an entire chapter (I mean really, nothing against them, but do they rank up there with Lewis and Clark and the Civil War?)

I don't particularly remember American history class, high school style. Stay tuned for the scattered memories of Social Studies, the world history version.

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