Sunday, July 3, 2011

Jay Jump Joyful

Time for a little Fourth of July Weekend blogging, and I'll start by pointing everyone to Will Wilkinson's tribute to John Jay, and a follow-up from Matt Yglesias.

I think the more general point here is that we're still living in the shadow of American apartheid, even now. After all, most baby boomers (and those from earlier generations) learned a version of history, at least up through high school, that pretty much swallowed whole the South's interpretation of race in US history. I suppose the most obvious starting point to this is the reputations of Grant and Lee, but it really affects the full sweep of US history, at least up to the 1950s.

Just to be clear: traditional history got a lot of things right. And this isn't about purging every slaveholder from the pages of the history books. It's about, at least in the first instance, getting the history right.

So I think I'll just throw out a question: what do you remember learning in grade school or high school (or, I suppose, college) history classes in American history that you now believe was totally wrong?


  1. I went to grade school and high school intermittently in Virginia and other places in the deep south and learned about the "War of Northern Aggression"
    I also thought that Robert E Lee's birthday was a holiday until I was 13 and moved to Rhode Island. Indoctrination is a wonder to behold and that is why it is so hard for so many to move on, don't you think?

  2. I don't remember much about what the history classes in school taught. I don't think what is taught in school is important compared to the media in forming popular understanding of history.

    Most peoples views of plantation life and reconstruction come from watching Gone With the Wind. This is where people get a distorted view of American history. GWTW has a sugar coated version of plantation slavery and a gross distortion of reconstruction.

    It is hard for educators to counter the influence of a well made film. One thing that could counter GWTW's influence would be to have Uncle Tom's Cabin more widespread in today's culture: To have it read or staged in schools. Make a big budget film Hollywood film of it. Stowe's story is just as compelling as GWTW. UTC is considered racist but I think it is less racist and more accurate then GWTW.

  3. I bounced back and forth twixt the northeast and DC in grade school. DC is far enough south that the Puritans were ignored except as a Thanksgiving sideshow, but north enough that it was called the "Civil War". The NE ignored Jamestown - all Plymouth Rock.

    In both cases, it was all Disneyfied - heros all good, villains all bad.

    HS (in NE at that point) was somewhat better, but they still had real problems talking about slavery (in particular the slave trade, since many of the ships and captains came from the NE), Native Americans, and the importance of trade in distilled fluids.

  4. @ Mercer:

    My understanding re: UTC, though, is that it's essentially unreadable today because it is so melodramatic. That the reason it's not assigned in schools or anything is because the writing is basically terrible, at least according to modern sensibilities. One of those books whose cultural impact at the time of its publication is infinitely greater than its literary impact later on.

    Is that your sense, having read the book? I don't really know as I've never read it myself.

  5. Among other things, I was taught that the U.S. won the Korean War, Alan Shepard was the first man in space and John Glenn was the first man to orbit the earth.

  6. The US DID win the Korean War: the chief objective was to prevent North Korea from conquering South Korea, and North Korea *was* prevented from conquering South Korea.

  7. I grew up in the midwest (Chicago-ish) and the most distorted things I remember are about the very beginning of the country. Columbus sailed to prove the world wasn't flat, the pilgrims and native Americans got along wonderfully, and everything was super nice.

    Personally, I think this is a much better interpretation:

  8. Lodus,

    I am reading it now. It is more sentimental then most entertainment consumed today but no more then Dickens. I think the problem schoolchildren would have with it is not the book's melodrama but the extensive dialect used in the book.

  9. Besides what others mentioned, grade school history tended to ignore the more imperial aspects of United States geographic expansion, treating it all as sort of a natural thing. It got better in high school.

  10. One guy who immediately leaps to mind in the context of the American apartheid machine is Malcolm X. While King's focus on embracing multiculturalism was understandably endorsed by the majority white culture, Malcolm X's message of blacks embracing black enfranchisement was threatening, and he was largely vilified in the popular white imagination.

    It is interesting to reconsider Malcolm X without regard to the hype, hysteria or even racial history. Much of his canon would be considered essential, individual enfranchisement Americana if it had been uttered by the founding fathers and applied to whites. Funny how such things get spun.

  11. When I was taught about Commodore Perry's landing in Japan, it was portrayed as this amicable deal between the US and the shogunate, not the show of imperialistic force that it was; I was taught the treaty served to "liberate" them from their backwards isolationism.

  12. Anyone who hasn't read Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States" by now should pick up a copy. The reader will need a certain level of maturity to accept what's written within -- abandoning the fairy tales taught in K-thru-12 education. Sometimes its hard to give up Santa Claus -- challenges almost everything politcal/historical I've probably ever been taught. Atrocities against Native Americans and African slaves are astounding ... and neatly buried under the carpet in K-12 education ...

  13. I remember most of my history textbooks clearly implying that the Mexicans started the Mexican War. It got a little better as I went up in middle school and high school, but it was mostly in the form of sidebars talking about how "from the Mexican perspective," Zachary Taylor had no right to be standing on the banks of the Rio Grande.

  14. Graduated from HS in 1965. I had a great American history teacher, and to this day I can't think of anything he emphasized that I have later found to be misleading. He was pro-Grant and anti-Lee. He pointed out the racist implications of the south's interpretation of the Civil War (he once called it the War of Southern Treason.) He emphasized something that resonated for me immediately, that all the major cultural advances of civilizations around the world are the products of cities. I have always thought I lucked out because he was there at that time.

  15. I had my K-12 education in upstate NY. We learned how the people of upstate NY single-handedly saved the American Revolution and ensured that we became an independent nation.

    And nothing I've seen since has convinced me otherwise!

    Seriously, though, I don't remember any major misinformation. The history of the Iroquois League suspiciously stopped at the American Revolution, though. The last I remember learning in schools was that some tribes sides with the Americans, and some with the British. I don't recall learning more history past 1783.


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