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"What about History?"

     Sometimes I think most of the world's troubles can be laid
at the feet of the history teachers of the U.S.A.  Since I used
to be one, some of this attitude is self-blame.
     History is presented as the orderly account, usually in
chronological order, of what happened in the past.  It is the
record of the daisy-chain of events that leads up to the present. 
Some people become really interested in history because of their
belief in cause and effect, and their curiosity about how we got
into this mess.
     But we have to be very careful.  Human memories are not
flawless, and some of those who know how to write, thus creating
the "historical records," are liars.  "History is what the
winners have to say about the past," some cynics have said. 
"History is what the Powers that Be want you to think about how
things got to be this way," others say.
     Yet it is the losers who tend to remember history best.  My
personal experience of that came from my Scottish mother, who
taught me to keep clearly in mind the difference between Scotland
and England, and who never quite got over how the Scots were
finally simply absorbed into The United Kingdom.  She, and
millions of others over the centuries, left Scotland, but never
forgot the history, some of which was very grim.  The movie, 
BRAVEHEART, tells some of it.
     As a school-subject, history over the centuries has not been
well-liked.  Kids are quick to say, "Boring!" but that's almost a
sure sign that the subject isn't being handled well.  If anyone
really intends to get a grip on the past, chronological order is
important, and that old time-line can be very helpful, but
history isn't memorizing dates.  Inventing ways to punish those
who don't memorize easily what is still to them nonsense is no
way to teach history.
     What really happened could hardly be boring.  I suspect that
kids, with their unerring instinct for truth, tend not to like
history because they can tell that what is being taught to them
is false.
     Two marvelous books have come out recently which correct
that.  THE PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE U.S., by Howard Zinn, tells
American history from the point of view of the losers, not the
winners -- the natives who were here before the Europeans
arrived, the Africans who were brought here as slaves and cheated
and mistreated, the women (!!), and the lower classes who did the
hard and dirty and dangerous work.  The book is in no way boring.
     LIES MY TEACHER TAUGHT ME, by James Loewen, has a more
provocative title and tone, and covers much of the same ground. 
The real causes of the War against Mexico in the 1840's are made
clear, as they never were in junior high school in my childhood,
for example.
     Henry Ford said, "History is bunk," and now I find myself
wondering exactly what he meant.  I always took it to mean
something like what J. P. Morgan meant, when he said, "The public
be damned."  Ford didn't want laboring people, colored or not,
making any historical claims on him and his enterprise.  But
maybe he meant he could get along without history altogether.  We
ran into a local instance of it lately. 
     A group of citizens had gathered to give ideas to the artist
who will create the public art at the bus stops on our street,
when the current renovation is complete.  One suggested some
indication by symbol that this used to be El Camino Real,
connecting Santa Fe to Mexico, even before the founding of
     "Oh, no," cried our neighbor.  "This was old Route 85."
     "Well, the Camino Real was two hundred years before that."
     "Oh, well, I don't remember that," she said, as if history
began just when she did.
     A TV commentator said recently, "Arabs have long memories." 
He didn't mean two hundred years -- he meant more than a thousand
years.  He meant they have a lot of history in their heads.  It's
another case of how losers remember better than winners.  He
meant that our commander-in-chief, who doesn't have any history
in his head and declares that he's proud of that and doesn't need
it, should be careful with words like "crusade."
     The speakers of Arabic remember not only the Crusades but
also the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, which allowed their
lands to fall into the hands of the British and the French, who
later decided details like "national boundaries" for countries in
the Near and Middle East.
     When history becomes embedded in the psyches of a whole
people, it becomes myth and very powerful.  Those who don't want
to bother with history will never fully understand what is going
on.  They can throw their weight around, for a while, but in the
end they will be left wondering what happened.
     Our U.S. history doesn't become embedded in our psyches
quite so effectively, because we can't help but be ashamed of it. 
What we did to the people who were already here when the
Europeans arrived, what we did to millions of kidnapped Africans,
what we did to rail workers, steel workers, miners, migrant farm
workers -- all that can't be fully erased by singing about
rockets' red glare and bombs bursting in air.  
     We have the anti-history people advising everyone to forget
about the past, to "get over it."  It's bad advice.  It labels
the losers the "evil-doers," when the opposite is the case.

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Copyright © 2003 Harry Willson

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