Thursday, January 20, 2011

On obscuring the truth about history

Okay, so the state of Tennessee has had a rather rough relationship with the educational system going way back. (History buffs may remember a certain trial about a certain teacher and intimations about a certain primate.) Well, they're back, and this time it's social studies they're after.
A coalition of Tennessee Tea Party groups has formulated a list of "demands" focused on the state's educational curriculum and political agenda that they want the state's legislature to heed this session.

Hal Rounds, spokesman for the group, recently claimed at a news conference that there was "an awful lot of made-up criticism about, for instance, the Founders intruding on the Indians or having slaves or being hypocrites in one way or another."

Now, I'm not sure exactly what Hal is getting at here. If it's his contention that it's the criticism that's made up, well, there's plenty of very real criticism out there on those subjects. And if it's those specific claims that he says are made up--the displacement of Native Americans, slavery--there's pretty good evidence for those things, too.

I'm not saying that the Founding Fathers were all bad. Our very country exists because of their role in our independence from Great Britain. Our system of government (humanly flawed though it may be) is due to their hard work (and some strategic borrowing of ideas, which is how these things get made). Said Fathers even made significant contributions to concepts of human rights and liberties that we still reference today--think about Thomas Jefferson's writings on the separation of church and state and James Madison's on immigration. On the whole, they were stand-up guys who made a lot of hard decisions during a hard time, and much of it has turned out well.

But does the fact that they did a lot of good things completely eclipse the bad things they did? Yes, making an omelet involves the breaking of eggs, but the deliciousness of the omelet doesn't mean the eggs didn't get broken. American expansion happened at the expense of Native Americans who were here first. The country was built on the back of slave labor, and many of the aforementioned Fathers had slaves. Whatever slant we want to take with our teaching, we have to be honest with ourselves about those things, or else we're just plain wrong.
As a result, the Tea Party organizations argue, there should be "no portrayal of minority experience in the history which actually occurred shall obscure the experience or contributions of the Founding Fathers, or the majority of citizens, including those who reached positions of leadership."

Or we can just go the full-on "willful ignorance" route. We can sweep the "experience" of the "minority"--the Native Americans who lost their homes, the slaves who lost their freedom--under the rug because it casts a different light on the wealthy men in "positions of leadership." If we can't hold two ideas--the good and the bad of the founding of our country--in our heads at once, we'll choose the more flattering one.
The thing we need to focus on about the Founders is that, given the social structure of their time, they were revolutionaries who brought liberty into a world where it hadn't existed, to everybody--not all equally instantly--and it was their progress that we need to look at," Rounds explained of his interpretation of the legacy of the Founding Fathers.

Yes! Absolutely! Do that! The work they did with the materials they had at hand was, and continues to be, awesome. Teach the hell out of it (although if you're going to say that they "brought liberty into a world where it hadn't existed," you have to be willing to concede that the natives who were here first already had liberty). But you aren't just the history of America--it's the history of Americans, and there are Americans whose ancestors walked the Trail of Tears, and there are Americans whose ancestors were "triangularly traded" to build the quite literal foundations on which our democracy was built. To trim their stories out of our history curricula just because they're not entirely flattering to our founders is to tell those Americans that their history doesn't matter, that it has to be soft-pedaled or hidden away because it puts a bit of tarnish on the edges of your otherwise golden ancestors in Boston Harbor.

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