The summer before my first year in college I read Lies My Teacher Told Me, an excellent book about the errors and omissions in high school American history textbooks that gloss over the not-so-pretty parts of our nation’s past.
I loved the book, and I remembered seeing a copy on my grandma’s bookshelf. So one day, I tried to strike up a conversation with her about it.
That didn’t go too far.
I don’t remember her exact words, but the essence was that she doesn’t like books that point out the faults in our country’s history, and the conversation stopped there.
All too often the way we discuss American history in the United States leads us to the same place my grandma and I came to: a conversational dead-end. Either the conversation doesn’t go any farther (as it did with my grandma and me), or it goes forward with both sides having closed their ears, minds, and hearts as they open their mouths to shout their views.
This failure to engage other perspectives paralyzes us to be able to confront issues of economic vitality, race relations, the role of the U.S. military, or other important issues of the day.
The polarization of history
There is a polarization in the teaching of history. On the right, American History is a self-important, jingoistic ode to the greatness, glory, and grandeur of the United States. The U.S. is portrayed as a nation that has been an unblemished beacon of goodness in the world. This noble history stands against an endless siege of internal sedition and external threats.
On the left, American history is a litany of abuses, injustices, and exploitations. It is a nation founded to protect the wealth and status of white Protestant land-owning men, and its entire history is a catalog of wrongs against people of color, women, workers, Jews, American Indians, and other nations to defend the interests of the elites. In the face of this bulwark of oppression, a consistent counter-current pushes for liberation for the oppresses. Sometimes this counter-current succeeds, sometimes it is co-opted, but these efforts can never fully redeem the nation from its tainted history and belligerent present.
Truth lies somewhere in the middle (as it so often does), and most people’s views of history also fall somewhere between the extreme positions I’ve laid out.
Polarization and the Cyclops
Adherents to both polarized positions are like cyclopses, the mythical monsters of The Odessey that had only one eye.
Physically we need two eyes to have good depth perception. With only an eye for the good or the bad parts of the American legacy, these polarized positions cannot see the fullness and depth of our country’s past.
And let us remember, while the cyclopses of mythology were huge and powerful (just like contemporary ideologues can be), they were also monsters capable of extreme cruelty.
Going beyond polarization to keep the conversation open
The problem with both narratives is that they shut out conversation with other views and the ability to learn from each other and work together for a better future.
My grandma’s reaction to Lies My Teacher Told Me shows how the critical perspective of the left’s narrative seems anti-American and just focused on attacking the country. Likewise, the “America can do no wrong” jingoism of the right’s narrative comes off as dishonest to those whose past ancestors have been done wrong by the United States, as well as those whose current communities don’t fully share in the promise of America.
An honest study of American history will acknowledge both the liberation and oppression in our history. Only a complete history is broad enough to include those whose hearts stir with the words, “liberty and justice for all,” as well as those whose hearts burn with the question, “when will my community see our liberty and justice?”
A Lesson from the Bible
One of the things I deeply love about the Bible is that it is make up of people who are always making mistakes–and who nevertheless are faithful to a higher calling. Noah got stupid drunk after he left the ark. Moses was a murderer, as was King David. Rebekah counseled Jacob to lie to his father and steal his brother’s blessing. The apostles are almost laughable in how often they get things wrong.
Part of the message of the Bible is that we do not need to be afraid to confront our mistakes and the mistakes of our ancestors. We should take that kind of approach to the study of history.
A lesson from psychology
Personally, we need to acknowledge both our successes and our failures to learn and grow. So too as a nation do we need to learn from and face the good and the bad in our history
I’m not calling for an end to conflict over history
When I say that we need to acknowledge the good and the bad, I’m not saying that we stop arguing over what those are. I have no illusions that the right and the left will agree whether or not the Vietnam War was a just war to stop Soviet aggression or an unjust war to prop up a corrupt and oppressive government. What I am saying is that in the debate, both the right and the left should be open to acknowledging that the government could have done good or bad things.
Why I think this is so important
I’ve been reading Courageous Conversations About Race as we look at how we can support efforts to close the achievement gap in local schools, and I’ve been reading Uprooting Racism as part of our upcoming Racial Justice Book Group.
Courageous Conversations quotes and article by Julian Weissglass discussing causes for the achievement gap which says:
“White people lack informatnio about the history and nature of the oppression that people of color have endured. They learn little, for example, about the genocide of indigenous people, the kidnapping and slavery of Africans and the oppression of their descendants, the military seizure of the southwestern U.S. territory from Mexico, or the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II…. Given the lack of information and the spread of misinformation, it is not surprising that white peopel do not always understand the feelings of native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, or Asian Americans.”
I agree with Weissglass’s point, and experiences like the one I had with my grandmother lead me to ask the question, “how can we create the setting in which white educators and conservative Americans will be willing to look at the mistakes in our history?”
Paul Kivel’s Uprooting Racism does an excellent job to set the stage to make it possible for white Americans to explore issues of race and racism, and part of his strategy to do that is to avoid the blame game. He writes, “This book is not about whether you are a racist or not, or whether all white people are racist or not.” That is, he evades the temptation to put the discussion in cyclops terms that only see good or bad, that can only either indict or defend.
I believe a similar approach will help discussing the history of race or other difficult issues in American history.
This approach does not give the same self-satisfied sense of moral superiority that a polarized position does. But I’m willing to give up a bit of smugness for a better chance of connecting with people; opening ears, minds, and hearts; changing people’s perspectives (perhaps even my own); and thereby changing the world.