Accurate American History Was Made In Many Hues: It Should Be Remembered, Debated, And Taught That Way

By David A. Atkinson

The education calendar features Black History Month, Women’s History Month, and Hispanic Heritage Month. These designations have become more controversial and less placating during this time of rising contention over how history is taught. On disputatious issues ranging from community policing to health care access to wealth accumulation to education inequity, the disparities of today cannot be divorced from the patterns established through our history.

A friend shared a quote from Maya Angelou that is surpassingly wise: “Won’t it be wonderful when Black history and Native American history and Jewish history and all of U.S. history are taught from one book? Just U.S. history.” The goal is inclusiveness of perspectives on our experience.

There are organized efforts to achieve one book, coming from widely disparate starting points and aims. Sadly, the motivation is frequently to sanitize history and limit the perspectives represented. Seems there are a lot of folks being traumatized when forced to confront the truth that our long journey is not all sunshine and roses. This is a far cry from one colored by diversity of experience and perspective, as Angelou hoped for.

One of the most familiar quotes in the political canon comes from George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Two things keep this observation from being thrown on the pile of discarded clichés. First, our intermittent bouts of historical forgetfulness regularly come back to bite us hard. Second, this quote is on a plaque at Auschwitz, a central location of ghastly genocide we must never forget.

At a time when many people are looking to see history instruction become more inclusive, there is a concerted effort to make it more patriotic – the 1776 Project – that would render teaching more exclusive. If this was just a tactical counter to the controversial 1619 Project, then no big deal. It seems to be more in the eyes of proponents. No matter how much merit there is in these or other similar projects, an acceptable curriculum across the spectrum cannot be built around a partisan construct.

We have been given a preview of what patriotic education might look like. In the various retellings of the January 6th storming of the Capitol, these were peaceful protestors, unarmed, who were prodded into the building, who were provoked by security to defend themselves, who resembled your average weekday tourists, who are now being held as political prisoners. Asking people to deny what they saw take place in real time does not promote understanding of how our democracy is supposed to work or instill confidence that the public interest truly matters to whichever side holds power at the moment.

Teaching history as it happened is nothing like a pep rally. The trail of history is littered with sites where repugnant actions and unpleasant memories lie in unmarked graves. Our greatest leaders had their blind spots and their failings, which come with the human condition.

Arbitrarily rewriting history is not a recent phenomenon, as Civil War buffs know about the Lost Cause. The larger problem is that too much of our history already has been scrubbed. It was a political accident that most of America learned the brutal truth of the Tulsa burning and massacre. A wave of hysteria led to extreme violence that wiped out one of the most successful Black commercial and residential districts of the time. The victims were buried in unmarked graves. No charges were filed against perpetrators. No mention appeared in Oklahoma textbooks. When the story was resurrected, local folks felt that such distasteful events should remain unspoken. Why stir up trouble? Under this theory, digging into history would presumably be relegated to the archaeology of ancient civilizations.

Think this is not a Pennsylvania concern? Did anyone learn in their civics class about a lynching and burning in Coatesville in 1910? Or about the Paxton Boys massacring captive Conestoga Indians in Lancaster, and then marching on Philadelphia looking for more? In the reverse, did anyone learn about standout advocates such as James Forten and Octavius Catto and Lucretia Mott? Civics education as set in the 1960s is no more relevant in teaching students than the science curriculum from the same era.

Reevaluating the views and policies of those leaders glorified in history causes heartburn too. Understanding that even the greatest men and women suffered human flaws and frailties helps prevent us from believing that the story of American leadership is one of steady decline. Jefferson was an exceptional thinker, diplomat, and writer of soaring phrases, yet he stumbled badly on slavery. Nonetheless, take the sum of his parts, and there is clear justification for his profile on Mount Rushmore.

The founding fathers astound us still with their collective brilliance in establishing our nation, and the durability of the foundational documents they assembled. But they were surely not a collection of Olympian gods in heavenly contemplation. At the Constitutional Convention, there was plenty of pettiness, self-interest, and antagonism exhibited in the room. Read a good history of the ratification process and discover how both sides schemed and maneuvered to achieve their ends, whether ratification or rejection or a do-over. Even at this high moment of America’s birth, politics was more a frontier brawl than a genteel debating society. Personal affronts could be settled by dueling pistols as well as defamation suits.

The Pilgrims inspired by their perseverance, and contributed one of the seminal documents in the Mayflower Compact. They collided with others on not just religious theology, but on
practical issues such as how to deal with the Native Americans. The brutal wars fought and the brutal truth of sending captives to slavery in the West Indies strip the sheen from the goodwill of the first Thanksgiving.

Scholars critically reassessing the role slavery played in sparking the Texas War for Independence does not diminish in the least the bravery and sacrifice of those who perished at the Alamo, or the subsequent extraordinary victory at San Jacinto. Disagree with their conclusions if you will, but do not scrub their research and argument from the discussion, especially in the classroom.

How did the effort to wash their heritage from Native American children at the Carlisle School for Indians work out? That is worth studying and remembering. Add up the broken treaties, the outright land theft, the Trail of Tears, and the mistaken massacres of peaceful villages, may have proved victorious, but it was far from glorious.

If we do not study where our nation erred terribly, and what caused these transgressions against our better angels, then we are forfeiting a lot of hard-won experience that will be pertinent and useful in the trials to come.

Consider a relevant parallel. Christians, theologians and parishioners alike, regularly engage in Bible study. Jewish scholars famously scrutinize and debate the Torah. Does that mean those who raise questions are anti-religion, or those who develop interpretations that deviate from conventional wisdom hate God? Archaeology continues to uncover evidence that supports the Bible, while many parts still lack historical substantiation. One rarely hears anyone say that archaeologists agree on this point or that interpretation. That need not lessen anyone’s faith. As connections to historical events and persons are uncovered, it renders faith more real and less abstract for many people.

So where is the basis for branding those who revive forgotten parts of our American passage or reinterpret contemporary conclusions based on newly uncovered information as unpatriotic citizens who hate America? Apparently, logic, reason, and inquiry have been scrapped from the curriculum of our national conversation.

There does not appear to be much clamor for remedial history courses. Particularly when people are striving to contort existing courses already suffering a loss of academic integrity. We need to be less reliant for making historical judgments based on political polemics so frequently penned. We should give more attention and thought to the growing catalog of books by intrepid scholars who are revamping the reputations and our recollections of pivotal figures such as Alexander Hamilton, U.S. Grant, Fredrick Douglass, Robert E. Lee, and Thaddeus Stevens.

The single consensus conclusion about American history is this – it is complex, it is controversial, it is messy in detail, and the winners and losers at any point may shift positions over the long run. Why that is warrants our study, our digging deeper, and our community conversation, to decide the enduring lessons and how they might be constructively taught and applied today.

David A. Atkinson is a research associate with The Susquehanna Valley Center for Public Policy.

Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation.

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center.