Sunday, March 14, 2010

When Teaching History Crosses Into Intellectual Abuse

The second big story over the course of the last week, at least for those of us living in Texas, was the convening of the State Board of Education to make decisions on what will and will not be included in public school textbooks. Some news reports stated that these meetings were also important for the rest of the country as the State of Texas is the largest purchaser of textbooks so textbook publishers lean toward satisfying Texas standards.

As you would imagine, the makeup of the state board is one of a conservative member majority. Despite all the hopefulness of the Democrats in Washington, D.C. that Texas is looking more purple in voting, Texas is still a very red state. And, with the rise of the Tea Party nationwide, Washington, D.C. is told that America is still a center-right country. I am heartened to read that the conservative ideas of, for instance, history textbook content won out over the slippery slope of revisionist history. My son graduated from a public high school in Houston and I was not pleased to see Howard Zinn's version of U.S. History on the required reading list. I think that revisionist history has led to the dumbing down of American students. It is a travesty.

I watched a movie this weekend that was released in 2007, Freedom Writers . It is the true story of a young woman, on her first teaching assignment in an inner city high school. She has the class that has been written off as low achievers, the students who may not graduate. She turns them around through the use of teaching them journaling and by personalizing history. The crescendo was, after realizing that these students had never heard of The Holocaust, much less studied about it, and arranging a field trip to the city's Holocaust museum. Then, the students had a dinner with concentration camp survivors. And, later, the students raised money to bring Miep Gies, the woman who protected Anne Frank's family in Amsterdam, to visit their class and talk to them about her experience. It is a moving story. Most of all, it shows that the students were hungry for a class led by a young teacher willing to do the work of making history come alive for the students. In this case, it was connecting the dots between the brutal regime of the Nazis and the gang culture these kids were living in.

The tendency now is for textbooks to sanitize history - to scrub out important events and people in the name of political correctness. Christopher Columbus? Thomas Jefferson? We are told what horrible people they were, not of their contributions. History is often the telling of brutal stories, true. It should, however, not outweigh the exceptional place our country has come to take in the world. Our short experiment in democracy, as a young nation, is truly worth knowing. We no longer honor our nation's 'father', George Washington, with his own day. Now we have President's Day that lumps his and Lincoln's days together.

Sometimes historical facts give way to dramatization, too. As in the case of Miep Gies, she corrected a scene in the prize winning drama of 1955 - The Diary of Anne Frank. In the dramatic version, the liberty was taken to include a telephone call to warn the Franks that they were about to be arrested. That call was never made or received. Was that inclusion necessary? Did it make the story better?

It is ok, even desirable, to be proud of our country. It is not productive to continue down the blame America and her leaders for all of the world's troubles path. This is educational negligence and our students suffer for it. Ignorance is not bliss. To paraphrase an old and wise saying, if we ignore history we are doomed to repeat it.

We hear Hollywood actors speak as though they are intellectual giants and not actors memorizing lines to make millions of dollars at the box office. Tom Hanks, who has done work for veterans and active military, succumbs to the dumbing down of America. In a recent interview he stated that during WWII, Americans killed Japanese because we hated them. This hatred, he said, came from them looking different from us. He made the connection from that to the current war on terrorism. In his reasoning, American soldiers kill those who wish to kill them because they look different than them. He implies it is based on racism. Why does he do that? He does that because it is a common liberal rationalism, that differing opinions from intellectual elitists comes from a root of racism. It is ridiculous and tiresome. And, it is far from intellectual in argument.


Miss Pfaff said...

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The Real Polichick

nicholas said...

Tom Hanks' comments were not all that surprising.. a simplistic view tailored to fit our current times. His comments are not primarily directed to disparage our efforts against the Japanese. His actual point is for the here and now, and he is attempting to chide us, dismissing our nations efforts to protect itself in its efforts abroad and here stateside against what Hanks is thinking of as an ill considered distrust and hatred of the unknown.

The operative sentence in the quote is:

"Does that sound familiar, by any chance, to what’s going on today?"

No, Tom, it doesn't. In fact, it doesn't sound anything like yesterday either. It is one thing to look back at the war in the Pacific with the certain knowledge that we won the war handily, and at great cost to the Japanese, and another thing entirely to have actually lived through those events with the uncertainty of the future, the deep ache in the gut with the news that are Pacific fleet was utterly destroyed as it lay at anchor in Pearl Harbor, our young men burned and drown to death before many could even get topside and dressed, the staggering blow of the first six months of the war when the news was of defeat after defeat to an enemy that we had hardly taken seriously prior to the outset of hostilites. Wake Island..the Philipines...the surrender in the Bataan Peninsula..the Bataan death march... the harsh reality of the news of loved ones lost in far off places fighting against a brutal, fanatical enemy that would rape and kill the local women, behead your captured military personnel and send their soldiers off on suicide missions for a cause that was totally empty and devoid of any good.

Well, okay Tom, there are some similarities amongst the type of people we fight against, but it has to do with their ideas and they way they intend to go about treating people. It matters not what they look like. Heck we fought a civil war against people that looked just like us. In fact, not infrequently our family members were fighting on the other side. What was all the killing about then? No, it doesn't have to do with what people look like.

The question for us today is will we respond to todays threat with the clarity of purpose, political unity and willingness to sacrifice that will be necessary to win the struggle ahead. Based on the way you are thinking about what is at stake here, the answer would be perhaps not.

Good news is, there are lots of us who have been paying attention, and we have not given up.

Thank you sir, but you do not speak for me. As far as insightful political commentary, I think Gary Bussey would generate a more grounded insight into our political realities and personal motivations, both for today and for days gone by.

srp said...

The main similarity I see between today and WWII is that both were surprise terrorist attacks on the US. Although, if you really read history... the Pearl Harbor attack was not as much of a surprise as it seemed. The government knew Japan was leaning to war and in our own naive way kept trying to negotiate with them. But both Japan and the 9-11 hijackers were first and foremost... terrorists.

Dave Mundy said...

Excellent piece. It's good to see someone else who realizes that the battle over history standards wasn't about "religion," despite how the reporters tried to paint it. The panel which did the re-write was heavily stocked with those who represent the far, far, far left -- people with an agenda to "globalize" the thoughts of Texas students, to subjugate our culture and our history in favor of a world-view which is not in the best interests of Texas and the United States.
I think the SBOE did an incredibly admirable job of rejecting the Political Correctness. Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.

Anonymous said...

If this is what passes for education in Texas, I'm glad I moved out before my children had to attend school there. Give me the 'liberal' educational standards of the rest of the nation. The Texas School Board is no better than a madrass in Afganistan teaching its own version of Islam and history.

Anonymous said...

And we're glad you let, too. Hope the door didn't hit you in the @$$ on the way out.

Anonymous said...

I believe you meant 'left.' There's that Texas education showing through.