Friday, February 22, 2008

The Good of History

"History is bunk."
Henry Ford

"it is to interpret the past for the purposes of the present with a view to managing the future."
John Lewis Gaddis. The Landscape of History. Oxford. OUP: 2002

One of George W.'s less known, or at least less often referred to, "accomplishments" is his B.A. in History from Yale University, widely known as one of the world's great universities, at which, co-incidentally, Professor Gaddis teaches. It is easy to take this record of a past event as evidence in support of Ford's comment; on Gaddis's side, one might easily object that it could as easily have been in Molecular Biology or Quantum Mechanics, if one notes a) most faculty at Yale know a trap when they see it and, b) there is nothing a University won't do to keep powerful Alumni happy. I confess I have given passing grades to undergraduates for work I would have been ashamed of in Junior High; it didn't seem entirely fair to let them get that far and then introduce standards.

One of the best Chroniclers of the Indochina Wars, Frances Fitzgerald, did a study of American History textbook publishing in the late Seventies: America Re-visited, in which she noted that large school districts, such as Dallas or Chicago, in conjunction with publishers' marketing reps, drive the content of secondary school texts. The academics listed as authors of these books often have had little to do with that content for a decade or more, as it undergoes successive revisions, which are done by lesser known academics or educational specialists unfamiliar with the field. At best these often are bland, "balanced", and inoffensive to any conceivable demographic: in short, terrifyingly dull. They also are often triumphalist, jingoistic, right-wing crap which pass on the usual lies about the American past. I keep one of these, published in 1981, called History of a Free People; I withhold the publisher and authors' names here to avoid singling out only one guilty party.

This is not a rant about the abysmal ignorance of U.S. secondary school and college graduates; there are enough of those, showing us how many voters cannot find the Middle East, much less Iraq, on a map. It is partly a response to Howard Zinn's article in the Progressive, to which Jane R. at ActsofHope provides a helpful link. (How many times must I say it? You should be reading it; there's a link to the right: use it.) Zinn argues all the attention and fuss about the presidential race is a waste of time--just vote; it takes two minutes, and tiny differences between candidates may make a big difference--when we should be working before and after to drive the winner to more just and sensible policies. But how can we perform that most important task if we don't know our present circumstances? And how can we know that unless we know where we came from and how we got here: not the usual boring nonsense, but the truth? How can we make things better if we've no idea of what better actually is?

It's also partly personal, a justification for posting memories that I suspect many readers simply don't know how to react to, except with sorrow and anger that such things happen, and so many people need to deny. It's only a few bad apples at the bottom of the barrel, after all, just some genetically challenged hillbilly woman: nothing to see. To me, sharing painful memories is not only a matter of personal healing; in fact, I do not believe I will be fully healed until I may see an impact on my community and my country. I have learned to deal with them well enough for now, more or less, but, until school boards start to insist on History as it really was ("Es ist etwas engentlich gewesen"), until reporters and editors start to challenge candidates who play fast and loose with the facts, and write about what they know, and not what they get handed to them by a flack, and until those candidates suffer less for telling the truth than for lying through their teeth for political gain, until then, we need to tell, and hear, the truth, lest reality tear our lies from us fiercely, all at once, and we then mourn the consequences.


Jane R said...

I gots to run to one more meeting (bleah) but just a quick {mwah} and thanks and ((JohnieB)).

Paul said...

Yes, thank you, johnieb, for sharing memories; reminding us all of history; urging, pleading, enticing, shaming us to recall the truth.

Yes, I react with sadness and anger as you tell stories that we really need to remember and not shove under our mental rug, and I usually don't know what to say--except that I am glad you are telling them.

Blessings, friend.

johnieb said...

Knowing what to say is less important than listening carefully, as I'm sure you know and practice; I read your blog, too, and your comments elsewhere. Godde will reveal those things we need to say and do; our first task is only to be open to the signs, isn't it?

It's a pleasure to hear "friend" from a friend I'd like to meet.

Crimson Rambler said...

One of my friends, still in the classroom, reports that she now has students who were not aware there had been TWO world wars in the 20th century.

johnieb said...

My ex used to ask me "Which world war was Hitler in?" The answer, of course, was "Both: once as a corporal and once as national leader."

Paul said...

I do hope our paths cross this side of glory. Of all the blog friends out there the only one I've met in the flesh is Jane R when we were both students in Berkeley a few years back, Ormonde of Through the Dust when were both on the council of Associated Parishes, and some of the folks in the Bay Area (though not Kirstin who came there after I'd left).

I do enjoy this virtual company very much! Glad you are posting now.

johnieb said...

I'd be down one more than that, if it hadn't been for that inexplicable event in NYC last October, though I'm tentatively planning a meeting in Knoxville with the Guerilla Women of Tennessee in November. We shall see.

Kirstin said...

I often don't have words quickly, either--but I listen, and I take your stories in.

Thank you for telling them.

Jane R said...

And don't you dare go to Knoxville without stopping in NC on the way.

johnieb said...

I wouldn't think of it.