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What Should We Teach Our Children About American History?
The fiercest struggle going on in education is about who owns the past. Militant multi-culturalists say that traditional history teaching has brushed out minority ethnic identities. Their opponents say that radical multiculturalism leads toward national fragmentation.
February/March 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 1
You’ve pointed out the multiculturalist notion that history should be taught for its therapeutic value—that minorities may be so badly injured that they have a right to any medicine they can get, even the medicine of falsehood. The Cornell professor Martin Bernai writes that the ancient Egyptians were people one might “usefully call black,” which suggests that he recognizes that usefulness and probability may not be the same thing. Is it your impression that the more radical multiculturalists know they are dispensing lies?
First, I think they seize upon anything that seems to magnify the non-European character of American culture and ignore everything that doesn’t. This produces absurdities like the current New York State curriculum’s stress on the Iroquois contribution to the American Constitution. Second, Europhobia makes for some very bad history. Take the slave trade. The slave trade is essentially represented as a white conspiracy. In fact, as we all know, the slaves were delivered by black Africans to Arab slave traders and by the Arabs to white ships at the ports. And it was Europeans, not Africans, who finally abolished slavery and the slave trade. All cultures commit atrocities, but the Afrocentric party wants to maximize the atrocities committed by Europeans and deny the atrocities committed by Africans. It’s a corruption of history, and it really doesn’t matter whether people purvey it because they really believe it or because they think it’s good for black kids to have pride in their past.
Whatever the motivation, I think a lot of the proposed Afrocentric curriculum for the public schools is myth and fantasy. Myth and fantasy are harmful. If you believe that AIDS was concocted by whites in a government laboratory in order to wipe out the black race—as Professor Jeffries is reported to believe—you will be disabled from coming up with a rational strategy to control the disease.
Even trivial falsehoods are mischievous. Believing that Beethoven and Browning were black is going to make you sound odd to anyone who hears you insist on that as a fact. And when you discover that you have fallen for a series of “therapeutic” absurdities, your self-esteem, which this exercise is supposed to improve, is bound to suffer. The plight of inner-city Americans is indeed appalling, and to fight for themselves they need the best education we can deliver them, not a pack of anodyne lies.
How much success do you think Afrocentrists and multiculturalists are having on the ground? Black middle-class audiences liked the film Glory despite the multiculturalist critics, and black admiration for Colin Powell doesn’t seem much negated by hostility from black-nationalist intellectuals. Are black intellectuals as isolated from their troops as white intellectuals are from theirs?
One of the problems for both blacks and whites has been the notion of a monolithic racial party line, with dissenters like Shelby Steele under attack for various heresies. Certainly there has been a defensive solidarity that has discouraged some black intellectuals and politicians from speaking out against racist demagogues like Jeffries or Sharpton or Louis Farrakhan. I think this is slowly breaking down.
During the 1970s there was a great attempt inside the uni- versity to shatter orthodox narrative in American history. Do you see a link between this and the multiculturalists?
Deconstruction—the notion that all texts are indeterminate, that no one can get beyond the opacity of language, that meaning is fielder’s choice—carried a very familiar critique of historical objectivity to a new extreme. I suppose that this helped prepare intellectual ground for some of the sillier bits of multiculturalism. But history has always been a problematic enterprise. We are all prisoners of our own experience. We all look back into the past In terms of our current reoccupations and find “new” things in the past, things that previous generations were not concerned about. The impact of feminism and of the civil rights revolution on the rewriting of American history has been extraordinary and hugely productive. The more insight you can get to illuminate the past, the better. As Oscar Wilde said, “The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.”
Rewriting history is a constant process. Vogues play themselves out in due course. Twenty years ago a lot of people were confident that subsequent historical writing would generally be computerized social history. Others saw the future as psycho-history. But where are quanto-history and psycho-history today? Pieter Geyl, the great Dutch historian, properly described history as “an argument without end.”
Right now I have the impression that we are witnessing a return to political history and diplomatic history. The diffuseness of social history has provoked a revival of narrative. The false antinomy of analytical history and narrative history is finally collapsing. The perennial challenge to the historian is to fuse analysis and narrative, not to choose between them.
There’s a lag between fashions in the academy and curriculums in the public schools. In recent times history has had an uncertain fate in public schools. For a while it sort of disappeared into a soapy basin called social studies. Lately there’s been a revival. Even the curriculum-revision commission in the state of New York said that history and geography must provide the basis for social studies.
What do you imagine mainstream American history will look like in twenty years?