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Nowadays, history and related topics like geography and political science are in resurgence. That’s a wonderful thing. History majors everywhere are celebrating. Seems like we’ve been on the back burner for awhile so a little limelight is good.
Emerging from the shadows, however, has brought challenges. There’s all that brouhaha going on in Florida. Not to mention that school board meetings across the country now need referees. How did CRT become a curse when hardly anybody knows what it actually is? How can a text book be “woke”? Why have people become frightened by the teaching of history?
I started to wonder how my own history teaching in 1967 would stand up to scrutiny in 2023. I was pretty certain everything I’d learned, and in turn taught, was four-square. I always wanted my students to be woke before woke was a thing. Students needed to know that nothing stands in isolation but ebbs and flows like a living stream. I wondered if my textbook and my teaching actually taught what I remember I taught.
I decided to go look.
That middle school textbook (Story of the American Nation, 1967, Harcourt Brace & World) went into my library when I eventually stepped down from the classroom. I dug it out and let me tell you, leafing through that ancient book was a blast. It was way better than some of my old sermons. It has all sorts of interesting sidebars, colorful maps appropriately placed, and just enough facts to engage the mind but not overwhelm with detail. A perfect textbook for middle schoolers. It started with the European explorers. The newest and last chapter reached all the way to the Warren Commission and LBJ’s Great Society.
But then, following that last chapter, there was a little homily summarizing the previous 762 pages. The homily came to this synopsis of the American Story:
First there was the waiting land
Then came the people surging westward
Carrying democracy throughout the nation
Seeking peace and freedom throughout the world
It stopped me in my tracks. A friend once said something similar about the founding of the nation of Israel after the end of World War II. He described that 1948 political decision as “a people without a land, found a land without a people,” as if that adequately summarized an incredibly complex dynamic. The parallel to my American Story was unsettling.
Clearly the flow of the historical record was more than adequately portrayed, but what was this addendum about? Was it simply Manifest Destiny with a Divine Providence undertone?
I decided to go look.
I soon found this illustration with its portrayal of a now contented “Indian”, complete with headdress, under the benevolent tutelage of the church — the European style cathedral in the background in case we didn’t get the point.
Obviously I’ve cherry-picked an isolated illustration out of several possibilities, but it’s a great one. Clearly the message was that our providential destiny was an irresistible spiritual force for good. The proof for that assertion is that the American way of life eventually influenced the world with the peace and freedom they were seeking.
Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not formulating some sort of hatchet job on history text books. Hindsight in full bloom is not leading me to text book burnings. It’s not even the exceptionalism that reduces Canadian and Mexican history to sidebars of the American Story. It’s not even the exclusion of Tulsa 1921 or the land grab of the Mexican-American War. Plus I certainly do not want to diminish the massive contributions for the good, either.
It was the subtlety of the message that stopped me in my tracks.
It has been said that history is written by the winners. In this case, however, it’s more like an astute, shrewd gaslighting. It’s a manipulation toward power and control, while maintaining the facade of the craft that is history. It is only one illustration but it’s a token of a subtle proposition. It is suggestive of a powerful force that easily stretches from a 1967 textbook to our current delusional madness. Possibly all the way to Florida or the classroom or to book burnings or to county commissioners. Maybe even to our churches.
Maybe we do need to be woke. . .and teach it to our children too.