Modern political opponents have grown fond of accusing one another of “rewriting history” for political advantage that typically served the exclusive needs of that portion of the population who maintained tight control over the writing of history.
As the civil rights progress of the last 100 years has unshackled new perspectives, our history has expanded to include these opposing voices, much to the chagrin of those who continue to claim that once a particular history is written, it can’t be changed. The reality is that to rewrite history is to reinterpret events in light of our own circumstances, which in 2020 includes a deeper respect for previously silenced voices.
However, the battles over history continue. To wit, a recent New York Times investigation revealed that American history textbook publishers adapt their books to local markets.
Presented as the same textbook, students in California can read that the Second Amendment is “often debated” and that “[t]his amendment seems to support the right of citizens to own firearms, but the Supreme Court has ruled that it does not prevent Congress from regulating the interstate sale of weapons.” In the Texas edition, these limitations of The Right to Bear Arms are replaced with a blank spot on the page.
I fully understand that many Texans wish to teach their children the rights they possess under the sanctity of the Second Amendment. However, shouldn’t all students in this country learn that differing interpretations of the Second Amendment exist? Officials in Texas, with the cooperation of the textbook publisher, decided to omit this fact.
In descriptions of the Harlem Renaissance, a flourishing period of African-American intellect and artistic creativity in the 1920s, California students can read poems from Langston Hughes who wrote about “a range of emotions from the pain of racial prejudice to his deep pride in his culture and heritage.” Indeed, an entire page is committed to heralding Hughes as one of the most significant figures of the movement. The Texas version of the textbook addresses the Harlem Renaissance but does not include the one-page feature on Hughes and adds that “Some [critics of the movement] dismissed the quality of literature produced.”
It is difficult to imagine any literature that has no critics, while it is far less difficult to imagine why Texans would go to the trouble of criticizing the creative output of the descendants of slaves.
The real threat in today’s chaotic world is the ease with which one can portray an historical event with only those facts which support a particular cause while minimizing or completely ignoring those facts which might diminish it.
Many of the other examples revealed by the Times address parts of history that inform modern debates on immigration and gender identity. Perhaps the most glaring disparities are portrayals of the Industrial Revolution where one textbook touts the virtues of free-market capitalism without acknowledging, as another textbook does, the very clear fact that the Industrial Revolution created vast wealth inequality and polluted the air and water.
We are reminded here that history does, indeed, repeat itself. Selectively promoting the benefits of industry without alerting students to the damage it has done informs—or misinforms— current struggles over social inequality, environmental policy, and reactions to climate change.
Unlike the science that underscores many of these controversies, our reckoning with history arises from consensus. Sew enough doubt and that consensus can erode. In an age when science itself has come under fire, history’s vulnerabilities have been laid absolutely bare.
Historians have always known this about their work; that whatever they explore is dependent upon a critically scant fount of information. Even the holy grail of historical research, the primary source, is limited, by perspective and bias when viewed in the kindest light, and by personal advantage and manipulation when obscured in the darkest. A famous historian once claimed that he was taught to “doubt every document and assume that every witness is a damned liar.” This type of skepticism is intended to breed conscientious historians ever-attuned to the inherent shortcomings of their craft.
For each of my twenty-five years in the classroom, I taught students that every source of information was subject to scrutiny; and I used the example of our history textbook to make my point. I reminded them that textbook publishers are in the business of making money and that their customers are the state and local officials who make textbook purchasing decisions.
I reminded them that our textbook was very different from a typical American History textbook from the 1950s and provided an example to illustrate. Both textbooks informed students that it was Harry Truman who served as president in the final months of World War II and that it was Truman who made the decision to use atom bombs against Japan. However, the older book claimed that the bombs were dropped to save a million American soldiers who would otherwise perish fighting Japan. The kernel of truth here is that the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought a swift end to the war. However, the more recently published textbook mentioned that this million-soldiers-fatality figure had likely been fabricated, promoted, and then repeated in order to justify the annihilation of tens of thousands of Japanese civilians.
The hard reality is that American history has always been a propaganda tool to shape the way young people think and to nurture patriotism. I, for one, see the patriotic citizen as well-informed and skeptical. A descriptor, by the way, of “the patriotic citizen” includes as one of its metaphorical antonyms, “sheep.”
I have no doubt that a shared history can unite a people. Unfortunately, the more we tinker with that history in order to suit a political agenda, the more difficult it becomes to hold it all together.