Monday, February 15, 2010

(Re)Writing History

Apologies for the title and a use of parentheses that, as far as I can tell, was last acceptable in the ‘80s, when every cool poststructuralist academic, her/his brother, and pet dog were making all kinds of puns. Also adored was the title containing two or more colons (yes, those do exist). Just be glad I didn’t throw one of those at you.

But if I were to write a paper on some of the creative re-imaginings of American history I’ve heard, I might need a colon or three. (And being Patrick Henry, I’ve heard lots of those, especially a teenager at the counter of a Virginia 7-11 asking me if I’m the guy that all those streets and stuff are named after. Note to self: Never pay for anything in Virginia with a credit card, ever again.) And misunderstandings, misconceptions abound not just in storefronts but in pulpits, newspaper columns, conventional wisdom, and--courtesy of Christian fundamentalism--possibly in a classroom near you.

Sunday’s New York Times Magazine features an essay by Russell Shorto entitled “How Christian Were the Founders?” In this piece, Shorto explores a recent push by the Texas State Board of Education--which has enormous sway over other state education agencies--to include details about the founders’ alleged Christianity and how those principles founded American social and political culture.

This is the same state board that, Shorto reminds us, last year had conservative members pushing for a mandatory inclusion of intelligent design and young earth theories in science classrooms.

Shorto writes, “Recently, however--perhaps out of ire at what they see as an aggressive, secular, liberal agenda in Washington and perhaps also because they sense an opening in the battle, a sudden weakness in the lines of the secularists--some activists decided that the time was right to try to reshape the history that children in public schools study. Succeeding at this would help them toward their ultimate goal of reshaping American society.”

There’s been ample evidence--on both sides of the issue--that the founding of the United States and the creation of the Constitution may or may not have had religious reasoning to it. But what’s being forgotten in this debate is that such an argument isn’t history--if by “history” we mean an aggregation of facts, the individual datum that like vertebrae stack upon each other and calcify into a backbone, into a linear spine of dates and events.

An argument on either side can occur quite easily. As a writer and literature student, I can easily investigate, for instance, Jefferson’s prose in The Declaration of Independence or the founders’ “Christian” references in the Constitution, things easily explained away by either political necessity, by groups of Enlightenment-era philosophers and humanists and scientists and wealthy business owners employing a religious discourse to validate their control over the economic, social, and political means of power and production (sound like anything that’s happening today?). But the religious movement can point to events--such as one that Shorto references--like Baptist ministers lobbying President Thomas Jefferson for protection, security, and a small bit of constitutional interpretation (hopefully, in their favor).

In requiring textbooks to explicitly reference the country’s Christian creation myth and favoring a conservative agenda (such as including Newt Gingrich, who’s “Contract with/on America” is actually quite minor compared to the prolonged and integral role of Senator Ted Kennedy, not included in the proposal), the Texas State Board of Education is not providing an actual and factual history, but a version of history. A particular critical fiction that they want people to buy into and believe.

Facts are not an argument; facts are the basis for arguments. And that’s what history is: Not a fact but an argument spun from bits of evidence, an argument that--depending upon its creator’s whims--can be contorted into one sort of personal fiction or another. So if you want to teach history, start with the events and don’t give students an interpretation, but encourage them to hunt for the evidence and the details and piece together a personal understanding of the narrative, based on facts and research and critical thinking.

Any of you involved in education (be that as students or teachers), I’d be interested in hearing what you have to say on this. Click on that "Comment" button and let me know what you have to say.


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