American History Through the Conservative Lens

4 04 2010

Noted American Historian, Eric Foner – noted as much for his scholarship as for his vilification by radical conservatives – has written a wonderful analysis of the new social studies curriculum recently approved by the Texas Board of Education. Foner leans left himself, but he’s an esteemed historian and expert on American history, unlike the members of the Board of Education.

Eric Foner

His summary of the new curriculum shows it as being an exemplar of the conservative world view. It stresses the values of individual enterprise, self discipline, group conformity, religious obedience, in-group favouritism; and explicitly dodges issues of racism, secularisation, criticisms of capitalism and any values that promote communitarianism, pluralism of values or multiculturalism.

While I acknowledge the value of some aspects of conservatism and I’m critical of some aspects of (particularly post-modern) liberalism, the history class is not the place to have these issues fight their battle – not that there’s even a fight going on here now the Board has had its say along party lines.

History is a tricky subject to arbitrate; there’s arguably an infinite amount that can be said of history, not just covering the facts of events but interpreting their significance. But the crucial aspect is to provide the facts about historical events in as impartial a way as possible while acknowledging the various frames and influences on the interpretation of these historical events and then to engage in debate over the significance and the lessons learned. Neither should we be viewing history through the lens of conservatism as we should through the lens of radical liberalism.

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3 responses

4 04 2010
Paul

“The history class is not the place to have these issues fight their battle…”

Aren’t you being inconsistent here? Remember that conservative also means traditional; the Texas Board of Education has approved the narrative of American history that is traditional. While such decisions are certainly politicized, everything you have mentioned is in keeping with traditional views of American history. Remember, according to the stories that Americans have told themselves for centuries, America is the place for religious freedom, not Europe and its near genocidal wars between Protestants and Catholics. Hence the emphasis on religion. It is also the land of opportunity, as opposed to the old country where one’s station in life was determined at birth. Hence the emphasis on individual enterprise, self-discipline, and its love for capitalism(as opposed to the class based system of Britain or the near feudal conditions peasant immigrants had experienced in the backwards parts of Europe.) Also, being a land of immigrants with diverse languages, religions, and cultures and a lot of mutual dislike and very often open hatred, the emphasis on conformity and in-group favoritism. Remember, no immigrant group in the U.S. has ever been liked; almost every group, starting from the Irish on, were positively discriminated against. Of course, to mention this would call into question the modus operandi of how immigrant groups survived in the U.S.; by banding together and eventually denying others opportunities. Hence to call into question group favoritism by bringing up racism, pluralism, multicultarism would cast guilt and shame on what is a source of pride for most Americans; they are Italian or Irish or Polish and proud of it, and by this association they are superior to others. Really, is a history classroom a place to attack certain ethnicities? That is why the traditional narrative is the only way in the U.S. to have the history class not be the place to where these issues fight their battle.

4 04 2010
Tim Dean

Hi Paul. Thanks for the comment.

Perhaps that is the traditional perspective, but just because it’s traditional doesn’t mean it’s the most accurate depiction of history nor that it’s the best approach to teaching young people to understand the complexities of the world or how we got to where we are today.

Likewise, I’d would challenge an overtly Leftist/revisionist approach to history which seeks to use it as a tool to inspire reaction against the past and to instil progressive values.

My point is that there are different ways of viewing history, and we need to be careful to divorce, as much as possible, the interpretations from the facts.

I’d also add that your line: “the stories that Americans have told themselves for centuries” is very telling. The ‘stories’ are arguably myth – they’re a perspective laden with normative values. That doesn’t mean they can’t be told, but they should be told in the context of a moral perspective, not a factual one.

Furthermore, those comparisons you make between American and Europe don’t hold today in the same way they did 200 years ago, and to continue to tell them that way risks perpetuating an American exceptionalism that is no longer justified; many countries in Europe and elsewhere have liberal democracies, free market systems, secular governance, religious and cultural pluralism and have eroded class differences.

A final point: something can be too things at once. It can be good and bad. It can be a source of pride and shame. Telling history doesn’t mean tilting one way or the other. Here in Australia we struggle with our colonial past and the injustices served upon the indigenous population after we arrived. Yet we can confront these injustices and regret some actions whilst still being proud of other achievements.

History starts with the facts about events, people, ideas and changes over time. But that can spark conversations, criticism, debates and be used to promote various values. We just need to keep a cautious eye to the separation of these two aspects of history. The Texas School Board have filtered and interpreted the facts before the students will even get a chance to debate them.

6 04 2010
Paul

I think you make a good point about trying to separate the interpretation from the facts. However, public education in the U.S. is a real uphill battle. The population tolerates, at best, public education because they think it will bring their children higher paying jobs. It is easier to teach narratives than the analysis of facts, because learning a myth is easy to make into rote learning. Also, I am rather cynical about historians. I really don’t know of any who are scrupulous in separating facts from interpretations. Such mental hygiene seems more the province of the sciences, where such hygiene has more of a payoff in the academic hierarchy.

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