I make it a point to carefully screen online articles these days that seem designed to stir up controversy on issues of history, but the chatter going around about conservative efforts to edit the Common Core United States history materials to promote values of “nationalism, patriotism, and American Exceptionalism” seems to be a genuine conservative element. (Articles linking to it are here, here, and here.) The cornerstone debate seems to hinge on several issues, one of the core issues is the argument that the AP materials move away from “Great Heroes” and towards “Social and Economic Forces” to which my response is, welcome to the 1970s! In teaching United States history college professors, since the 1970s, have abandoned the “Great Heroes” school of teaching and moved towards social and economic forces as a means of capturing mass consent/mass movements and how they shaped history. The most current cutting edge historical work is a blending of both perspectives, arguing that social/economic forces are critical but also often key individuals form nexus points to spark historical change. So in that regard, the conservatives complaints are understandable, but for 17 and 18 year old students ramming into this material for the first time, no, they actually need the full “Social and Economic Forces Shape History” mind-blowing moment to properly understand United States History – the adult version.
Regarding complaints by conservatives that material should instill “patriotism, nationalism” and contain materials expressing a respect for “law and free market capitalism” – well that gets a bit more complicated. My personal favorite example is the Boston Tea Party, 1773, which actually captures both the power of “free market capitalism” and “civil unrest” – one of the subjects conservatives wish to, at the most generous, minimize in the material. The Boston Tea Party was due to many interconnected factors but one of the core issues was that it represented a government enforced advantage to a preferred provider (the East India Company) that was resolved by lawless behavior, throwing boxes of private property into the harbor. (In reality also climbing into boats and smashing open the boxes with axes while the sat in the harbor, it was low tide at the time and human screw-ups are a theme throughout history.) The Boston Tea Party is also one of the core “feel good” stories of the American Revolution, as is the Boston Massacre [more civil disorder] and the entire initial American revolution [armed insurrection against the legal authorities.]
Want to argue that those “don’t count” because they are rebellions against British law and order? Fine – the Whiskey Rebellion, an armed uprising by western Pennsylvania farmers against what they saw as unfair taxation by the United States federal government in 1793. That image you see above, by the way, is a federal tax collector being tarred and feathered by the farmers to drive home their point they don’t wish to pay the tax. Why the rebellion against the tax? Again, many reasons but at a simple core point, they felt it an unfair tax because it overly impacted the western territories which lacked sufficient political power to oppose the action in Congress and have their opposition have meaning.
Not to be crude but that is a Right-wing wet dream up there of “proper” rebellion against authority, it even depicts, again, free market forces raging against government tax tyranny.
The thing that really pisses me off though, as a historian, is the complaint by the right that the AP History material makes the United States look too evil, makes corporations look too destructive, and doesn’t present any event with a clear sheen of heroism in it. The picture above is from the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, which the right would probably prefer to describe as a “battle” – in which when U.S. Troops of the 7th Cavalry were escorting Lakota tribal members (by “escorting” we mean “forcing back to their approved territory”) and there was an incident with a single gunshot being fired, no one is sure who opened fire. The U.S. soldiers then proceed to slaughter the Lakota using vastly superior firepower, when several Lakota attempted to flee they were chased by the troops and shot down. The fire was so undisciplined and the urge to slaughter so powerful far more U.S. troops were hurt by friendly fire then by the Lakota shooting at them.
By the way this was the same 7th Cavalry that in 1876 had its ass kicked by a combined force of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes – do you think there might be some possible effort in this battle to offset the sting of a past defeat?
The answer by the way, is not necessarily known, it would require assessing letters written by solders at the time, the post action report, and news coverage of the event. It would be an involved examination of many sources of material, a careful discussion of what they might mean, and careful and thoughtful analysis by those studying the issue. In other words, perfect fodder for AP high school students to discuss.
But make no mistake, that image, and what happened, is an ugly moment in United States history. There are plenty of ugly moments in U.S. history. There are also moments of amazing beauty in U.S. history. But all of those moments have a good dollop of good and bad in them. The realization of that fact is when you move from understanding history in a simplistic manner and shift into understanding it on a more nuanced level.
I’d like to leave you with a story from my own studies when I was getting my Masters in history – I was taking a course on the history of Modern China [1800 to 2000 for those curious] and our professor was a refugee from Communist China, so from the 1950s onwards we routinely heard stories about how stupid the Communist Chinese were/are. Incredibly angry stories, the professor chortled over things like the Great Leap Forward. But one thing that stayed with me was her story about how Communist Chinese historians worked very hard, and debated, to come up with an official “percentage” for Mao – the end product of their work was the officially mandated historical rating of Chairman Mao – he was, and I quote, “51% Good and 49% Bad.” The professor then laughed and we all joined in – stupid Communist Chinese, you can’t assign percentages to history, it doesn’t work that way.
As an older man though, with more time and perspective – as well as far more study of history on my own – I think silly as the idea sounds basic history students would benefit from the challenge of having historical figures presented this way – as a mix of “Good and Bad.” Simplistic as it may be it would help people begin to grapple with the complicated realities of history in a more meaningful way and also make historical figures, and events, more useful to students as a way to help grapple with today. For me the goal of history is not to teach people how to deal with modern challenges, it can at best provide hints at past screw-ups and triumphs under different cases, no history has value in teaching people how to navigate ambiguity and uncertainty, by providing good examples of those in the past facing the same challenges who both rose and fell.