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I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided; and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past. — Patrick Henry, 1775
Nearly twenty years ago, Australian historian Keith Windschuttle wrote a scathing indictment of contemporary historiography. He attacked the prevailing post-modern analysis as little more than “Parisian labels and designer concepts.” The book, Killing History, established the basic argument against history written in a way that was divorced from empirical evidence and a sense of universal standards.
This is how we’ve come to understand the history wars: the destruction of the past through the use of distorted evidence and the rendering of Western history as the bigoted story of small pox blankets and war-time internments. While framed as a fight against the biases of traditional history writing, the post-modern approach commits its own sins while attacking those of its enemies. The world of the po-mo historian is a world in which only white Europeans have agency, while the remainder of mankind is made up of hild-like victims of European greed and lust.
Subversion is one way to fight a culture war. Another, arguably more effective way over the long run is ignorance. Shortly after Windschuttle published Killing History, the eminent Canadian historian J.L. Granatstein wrote Who Killed Canadian History? Whereas the former work raised the hue and cry about political correctness, the latter pointed to another more insidious danger:
Who, in particular, is responsible for this decimation of our history?
- The provincial ministries of education for preaching and practising parochial regionalism and for gutting their curricula of content.
- The ministry of bureaucrats who have pressed the “whole child” approach and anti-élitist education.
- The ethnic communities that have been conned by Canada’s multiculturalism policy into demanding an offence-free education for all Canadian children, so that the idea that Canada has a past and a culture has been all but lost.
- The boards of education that have responded to pressures for political correctness by denuding their curricula of serious knowledge and offering only trendy pap.
- The media that has looked only for scandal and for a new approach to the past, so that fact becomes half truth and feeds only cynicism.
- The university professors who have waged internecine wars to such an extent that they have virtually destroyed history, and especially Canadian history, as a serious discipline.
- The university presses and the agencies that subsidize professors for publishing unreadable books on miniscule subjects.
- The federal governments that have been afraid to reach over provincial governments and the school boards to give Canadians what they want and need: a sense that they live in a nation with a glorious past and a great future.
What was said about Canadian history nearly a generation ago will soon be said about American history. Don’t believe me? Here’s a story from the American Heartland:
North Dakota students may or may not learn about the first 100 years of America’s history.
Important topics like the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War and the framing of the U.S. Constitution may [continue to be] simply be ignored by teachers under new history standards approved by the state’s board of education last Monday, the Argus Leader reports.
Current standards [i.e., those being replaced] do not allow history teachers to delve into topics before the Civil War, so the new standards open up the door but don’t require teachers to cover early American history, as many would have preferred. The recently adopted history standards are set to take effect in 2016-17 school year and whittle the current standards from 117 pages to 44.
If a math teacher was to suggest teaching calculus before algebra he’d be considered incompetent. Teaching the Civil War without explaining the Founding Era is every bit as absurd. Even if such a history was taught without overt bias, it would still serve to completely undermine the student’s understanding of the past.
Teaching history as a series of disconnected facts serves two purposes: It kills the child’s interest in the subject by turning it into a very boring version of Trivial Pursuit and it insures that he will remember the facts but not the context. It’s that last element that’s vital in the culture wars.
Take slavery, the granddaddy of all dark moments in American history. Let’s say you teach the history of slavery but only with reference to American history, ignoring what happened in other times and places. You spend a great deal of time on the experiences of individual slaves, the conditions on southern plantations, and the economic importance of slavery to the overall economy. The work of the abolitionists, the Lincoln-Douglas debates and the Civil War are glossed over.
The impression left is of a terrible evil that is at the heart and soul of American history. There must be something genuinely dreadful about a country that would tolerate such evil for so long. How hollow and cynical do the words of the Declaration of Independence ring then? Note that no outright lies have been told with this approach, yet the context has been repeatedly dropped.
Now imagine teaching the history of slavery in its full context. That slavery and other forms of coerced labor have been an accepted part of countless human societies down the ages. That, until the time of the Founding – a few theologians and philosophers notwithstanding – no one much cared about the moral questions raised by slavery. That the Founding Fathers struggled greatly with the moral and political consequences of the “peculiar institution.” That no other nation on earth had the moral courage to fight and win a great war on the issue of slavery.
Both approaches are “correct” in the sense that the facts are historically validated. The first approach, however, leads the student to conclude that America is evil. The second approach that America is basically good, though with a checkered moral history. If your goal is to raise a generation eager to blast away at the foundations of the American Republic, the choice of approaches is very obvious.