Sunday, November 22, 2009

Life in an American Fourth Grade: Self-Made Villains, Teaching American Kids that They're the Bad Guys


By Barry Rubin

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After the readings of books on African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Native-Americans, Hispanic-Americans (your choice, three books of four); the book on the African-American runner; and the book on the internment of the Japanese in World War Two, it’s time to study the…Native Americans.

And the plot line is clear. As my ten-year-old summarized the teacher’s explanation: The Native Americans welcomed everyone to America and said, “It’s all of our land. Let’s share it.” The settlers tricked them and stole it.

From everything I’ve heard so far, that is probably an accurate summary of what was taught. Even though the teacher supports this approach, of course, it comes from the county and state level as the curriculum.

Look, the bottom line is not: let’s rectify the exaggerations in the other direction from the past. These ten-year-olds were not brought up on John Wayne films, after all, and years of indoctrination that America is always right. For example, the film "Tell Them Willie Boy is Here" appeared in 1969; "Little Big Man" came out in 1970--that's 40 years ago! And since then Hollywood hasn't produced a single film in the cavalry-good-Indians-bad-genre.

What's going on now is merely putting other propaganda in place of the old propaganda.

In short, it gives the following message:

Proposition One: America is evil and born in sin.

Proposition Two: America is racist.

Proposition Three: Everyone else are innocent victims. It is therefore reasonable to assume that they are better than American, Americans, or at least the dominant system of the United States. The United States owes them big time and has a lot of apologizing to do. According to this, the best policy would be to say: We're really sorry and the check is in the mail.

Proposition Four: The assertion of U.S. interests, especially by the use of force, is a bad thing.

And so the conclusion is, to paraphrase President Barack Obama’s former religious mentor: God damn America/ land that I hate/Don’t stand beside her/Deride her/And may defeat and suffering be her fate.

Exaggeration? Well, that depends on whether the kids accept or ignore what they are being told—and not told. How are they going to know better—by instinct?—anything else?

By the way, I unfortunately purchased and read a recent biography of Ulysses Grant which had won a major prize. I was shocked at how bad the book was, almost openly propagandistic on behalf of current agendas. The basic argument was that the Grant Administration had been unfairly criticized for corruption by those who opposed its support for Reconstruction and African-American rights. This is ludicrous. It was arguably the most corrupt presidency in American history.

The corruption and mismanagement of Reconstruction governments was also a major reason why this worthy in principle effort to bring racial equality to the South failed miserably, antagonizing many who might have been won over by a fairer and more honest rule even despite the racial antagonism element. (The book was also largely plagiarized from Grant's superb autobiography.)

While we're on the subject, Grant might make a wonderful case study of how history can be balanced. Grant, judging by his autobiography, was a decent man very typical of the American character. He was modest and hated pomposity. He understood the need for war--and in his case the need for a particularly bloody strategy to win the Civil War--but regretted it and felt very personally the casualties he was responsible for incurring.

He was well-meaning but naive and hence fell prey to those who wanted to abuse an expansion of government and spending for their own private gain. The general was also a strong opponent of the Mexican war, which violated his sense of fair play, but helped fight and win it. He made clear his admiration for Mexicans as a people and for their culture.

Grant was a proud American but open to the world. He tried to help African-Americans achieve their rights but had a terrible policy toward Native Americans, despite the fact that one of his very closest friends and aides was one of them, a show of a great personal lack of prejudice on his part. In his personal life, he was very close to his wife who was one of his most trusted and heeded advisors.

In short, Grant's life and actions show a complex situation in which choices had to be made.  He also showed that past Americans, even generals, were not a bunch of racist, sexist monsters.

But back to the fourth grade. When I recounted the story about what's going on in this classroom to a friend, who is relatively conservative by today’s standard, he immediately replied that he had been taught that the cowboys were good and the Indians bad. Yes, that’s what this teacher also said had been her experience. For the record, that isn’t what I and many others were taught at all.

When I pointed out the absurd degree to which the pendulum had swung in the opposite direction, however, he quickly agreed. Still, it is easy to see how already there are built-in reflexes toward accepting a view of the United States and its history that is no more balanced than that of the most extreme nineteenth-century super-patriot. It's just in the exact opposite direction.

How should one respond to this?

First, the way to deal with past indoctrination is not to replace it with a new form of indoctrination. For me, the idea of liberalism is to be open to understanding that history and reality must be seen in a three-dimensional way, non-cartoonish way. Remember, this is the same teacher who when my son referred to Native Americans as war-like, replied huffily that there was no evidence for saying this. Obviously she never heard of the Plains Indians, Apache, or Iroquois. They were busy building their own empires. Tribes were not notably tolerant of each other, though according to the teacher the Iroquois were very "nice." Of course, her statement would be true for other tribes, especially the agricultural-oriented ones.

Underlying this kind of teaching, however, lurks the idea that only whites or Europeans can be aggressive or racist. In fact, while Europeans generally won, those they defeated were not necessarily saints. The Spanish Conquistadors were ruthless but the reason a tiny number were able to conquer Mexico and Peru is that the subject tribes hated the Aztecs (who we should remember carried out human sacrifice with them as victims on a massive scale) and the Incas so much that they allied with the Spanish.

At most, then, we do not discover that the American settlers behaved so badly as that people often behave badly in general. All power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But this is not the message of the radical left because it must insist that while capitalism is bad their utopia will be perfect.

A belief in human nature and the limits of social engineering are doctrines that promote conservatism. That’s why the left’s narrative must be: some people and systems are just plain bad but others are good. The underdogs are good; the winners are bad, and we will create a perfect system. And thus, we had seventy years of disastrous Communism in the USSR, which continues in such places as Cuba and North Korea, as well as in a different version in places like Iran, Syria, Libya, and Venezuela.

Second, while the old style of teaching may have been indoctrination, its goal was to portray America as a great country. Inculcating love of one’s country—especially when it is a democratic one that has always tried to do the right thing and made tremendous progress—is a good thing. Understanding that there are flaws or mistakes does not detract from the fact that this is a worthy goal. Teaching kids to hate their country can only end in disaster.

Third, a central part of American history is the fact that there have always been debates over what to do in which many Americans--often a majority--took stances quite in line with today's approved positions. Most obviously, there was the Civil War in which tens of thousands of whites died fighting against slavery. But there are many examples. Few people know what George Armstrong Custer was doing before heading off to meet his fate on the Little Bighorn. He was testifying in Congress against the government’s policy which he said was unfair to the Indians.

In American society, problems have been raised; conflicts fought; solutions found. The system has proved itself to be strong, flexible, and open enough to fix problems. That is why the capitalist and democratic systems have succeeded. Not because they are perfect but because they can deliver freedom, prosperity, and adjust as necessary.

At some point one would hope--but I doubt it--students will be taught about the disaster of Communism so they will have something to compare their system with. They might learn about dictatorship and Islamist totalitarianism. Then they could say: Despite whatever problems that exist in America we are far better off here! But I sort of doubt that also.

In addition, history should always be taught with an understanding of the prevailing norms at the time. This might be hard to believe, but in the future students may be given horrifying and hilarious lessons about how insane what's going on today will seem.

Fourth, necessity and conflict are part of life. Children should be taught the idea that conflicts exist. It is a tough world and sometimes one must decide what side he’s on.

While one can certainly find rationalizations for Native American actions—attacking the Jamestown settlement; massacring civilians; siding with the French in the Seven Years’ War or the British during the revolution—these positions did put them into conflict with the Americans in which the settlers had to defend themselves, fight, and win or, alternatively, die.

If one only acts with perfect morality on their side, one doesn’t act at all and thus one loses to people who are far worse.

And finally, if people really believe the kind of thing they are teaching, then they should leave the United States and go someplace where the land wasn’t "stolen" like: South America (Spanish and Portuguese colonialism); continental Europe (Germanic invasions, centuries of conquests by just about everyone); Great Britain (Normans 1, Saxons and Celts 0); most of the Middle East (Arab Muslim Jihad); etc.

In history there are tragedies, conflicts, and shades of grey. They are not the same thing as crimes and conspiracies. That’s how this history should be taught.

And also don't miss the funniest satire ever on how American history is being taught today.

Barry Rubin holds a PhD in U.S. history and has taught the subject in universities. He is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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