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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
I trust that there will be an integration of large portions of the current vogues. American historians must consider more systematically how events looked to the Indians, how they looked to blacks, to women, and so on. That kind of re-examination will prevent the callous dismissals of minority experience, which have occurred even among our greatest historians. They were humane people, and had events impelled them to see things in a different light, they would have written a different history. That’s all for the good.
I mean, did Columbus “discover” America? I am not going to argue with people who dislike the “discovery” of America for expressing a peculiarly European perspective. Their point is useful in reminding us to look at things from other perspectives.
Do you think that succeeding generations will be preeminently interested in seeing things the way increasingly distant ancestors did? Three of my grandparents came here from Russia in the first decade of this century, and while I may see the turn-of-the-century immigration through their eyes, I see a lot of the rest of American history the way it was taught to me in the public schools in New York State.
The meaning of ethnicity tends to get pretty thin after one or two generations. A recent study of the children and grandchildren of immigrants in Albany, New York, revealed that the most popular “ethnic experience” was sampling the ancestral cuisine, and less than one percent ate ethnic food daily. Ethnic experience is less shallow for blacks only because of the continuing potency of white racism. In this sense, to the extent that the antiracist program of multiculturalism is successful the rest of its agenda will fail.
The United States is the only large-scale multiethnic society that has ever really worked. The question is, Why has it worked? What is the American secret?
Look at the case of Hispanic Americans. Almost all firstgeneration Hispanics born here speak English fluently, and more than half of second-generation Hispanics give up Spanish altogether. A recent poll of Anglophone Hispanics discovered that their most admired historical figures were—in this order—Washington, Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt. Benito Juarez was fourth, and Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King tied for fifth. The new unmeltable ethnics are proving less unmeltable than the multiculturalists would have us think.
Would you say that in fact, the barriers against assimilation are weaker now than they have been for the last four hundred years?
Yes, I think that America has historically been much worse. We are a society that began by killing red people and enslaving black people and excluding yellow people. Racism is very deeply embedded in the national unconscious. What has happened in recent times is that we have belatedly begun to confront it. I can remember legislators rising in Congress to discourse on the necessity of preserving white supremacy. No member of Congress would have dared speak such words in public for a generation. People are much more aware of their own racism, and that awareness creates many possibilities. Racial tensions and conflict are highly visible, and at the same time by objective standards there is much less racism than in previous American history. I have mentioned Strom Thurmond. Maybe you have to be my age to find the sight of the old Dixiecrat vigorously politicking to secure the confirmation of a black nominee as startling as I do.
The multicultural vision at times refuses to see American history as in any sense a great political project, albeit one afflicted with a terrible irony from its genesis. At its best that older historical sense made for a generous and liberal patriotism. I’m curious as to whether you think anything like a liberal patriotism could arise from, or be any intended result of, the curricular reforms of multiculturalism.
I think it all depends again on how far they go. The new California curriculum is good. So is the 1987 revision of the New York State curriculum. Those reforms represent intelligent multiculturalism. Some of the more recent “reforms” have been less promising. Insofar as they promote racial separation, they are harmful.
This whole problem has to be seen in a larger context. With the fading away of the Cold War, we’ve reached the end of an era of ideological conflict. It is not, however, as some predicted, the end of history. One set of hatreds replaces another. From an age of the conflict of ideologies we are passing into a new age of the conflict of ethnicities.
The United States is the only large-scale multiethnic society that has really worked. The question is, Why has it worked? What is the American secret? We’ve been multicultural from the beginning, but we have countered the diversity of cultural backgrounds by aspiring from the start to create a new American nationality and a new American identity. The American idea was to absorb other cultures, not to protect and preserve them.
The radical multiculturalists make the preservation of alien cultures their objective. They think that the public school, which has been a great mechanism for the creation of a new American identity and nationality, should now devote itself to the reinforcement, celebration, and perpetuation of ancient ethnic identities.