Monday, January 11, 2010

A Positive Historical Baseline

Original post 3/30/2006

Peggy Noonan writes about immigration today. Her central point is that we are not doing a good enough job of explaining to the new immigrants the special and unique aspects of the U.S.
Because we do not communicate to our immigrants, legal and illegal, that they have joined something special, some of them, understandably, get the impression they've joined not a great enterprise but a big box store. A big box store on the highway where you can get anything cheap. It's a good place. But it has no legends, no meaning, and it imparts no spirit.
Noonan thinks that part of the fault lay with history teachers. In particular, those in secondary education.
Who is at fault? Those of us who let the myth die, or let it change, or refused to let it be told. The politically correct nitwit teaching the seventh-grade history class who decides the impressionable young minds before him need to be informed, as their first serious history lesson, that the Founders were hypocrites, the Bill of Rights nothing new and imperfect in any case, that the Indians were victims of genocide, that Lincoln was a clinically depressed homosexual who compensated for the storms within by creating storms without . . .

You can turn any history into mud. You can turn great men and women into mud too, if you want to.
That is true. No one is perfect, after all and when we focus on the unflattering characteristics and individual failings of historical figures in an attempt to make them more human, more like us, we sometimes obscure what brought them to our historical attention in the first place. And Noonan doesn't just blame the "nitwits" (as she calls them), those of us who engage in honest scholarship--" people who mean to be honestly and legitimately critical, to provide a new look at the old text" should also be aware of what we're doing.
They're not noticing that the old text--the legend, the myth--isn't being taught anymore. Only the commentary is. But if all the commentary is doubting and critical, how will our kids know what to love and revere? How will they know how to balance criticism if they've never heard the positive side of the argument?

Those who teach, and who think for a living about American history, need to be told: Keep the text, teach the text, and only then, if you must, deconstruct the text.
I'm sympathetic to her argument insofar as it relates to historical education at the elementary and, for the most part, the secondary school level. That's where we lay the historical groundwork and where we should avoid the overt or covert inculcation of historical cynicism into young minds. Leave critique's and deconstruction for the later years.

There is nothing wrong with first introducing a positive history to little kids who in today's day and age seem to not hear enough positive stories. In the grand sweep of our nation's history--although many things have "gone wrong"--I think most would admit that the U.S. has historically been heading in the right direction (I'm generalizing, not being deterministic). Recognizing this, we should establish a positive historical baseline from which older students can venture. When they get older, when they reach those teenage years when so many believe history is boring and their minds are looking for something new and exciting, that's when we should introduce them with "well, did you know this part of the story about such and such."

Introducing those historical shades of gray at a later age--when the kids are more able to deal with them--seems like a better idea than saddling youngsters with too much historical irony and cynicism. I think there's a way to positive way to contrast American ideals with America's historical reality. After all, every time the nation fell short there seemed to always be those in the background or in the minority who continued to strive to meet the ideals. America has not yet been a lost cause.

Lest we forget, most of us adults learned the nuances of our history only after we learned the "happy" basics that Noonan describes. I'd guess that many future historians came to love history in college because they enjoyed learning and discovering more details--good and bad--about the same old history that they thought they had already know. It seems like it worked for us. I'm not saying we should lie to the kids or focus on some triumphant narrative, but I think Noonan has a point. We should teach our kids to give their own nation and those who built it the benefit of the doubt. That's where we started and I'd say that historians have managed to do quite well.

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