Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Schooled in dishonesty about the nation's past

 You may have seen an asinine tweet by Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state, earlier this month: "If we teach that the founding of the United States of America was somehow flawed. It was corrupt. It was racist. That's really dangerous. It strikes at the very foundations of our country."

Even I, in American history class in my junior year of high school knew about the three-fifths clause: that the slaveholding states would not ratify the Constitution without protection of slavery, and that counting each Black human being as a non-voting three-fifths of a person would give those states a boost in representation in the House of Representatives. 

And I knew, in the sanitized textbook version,* that the fights over admission of new states in the first half of the nineteenth century were over maintaining enough slaveholding states to maintain a bloc of senators able to thwart any antislavery legislation. 

The Civil War, I recall, had something to do with tariffs and was mainly about states' rights. We were not told that slavery was the only state's right the Confederacy cared about, though their own secession legislation said so. Reconstruction was something about "carpetbaggers" and "scalawags." Don't recall that we go to Jim Crow. 

At least we weren't subjected to one of those Southern textbooks saying that enslaved people were well off and grateful to their beneficent masters.**

Everything touchy about the nation's past was minimized. There had been "problems," for sure, and perhaps mistakes were sometimes made, but nothing halted our national triumphal rush to glory. 

My history teacher, Jim Johnson, had impulses to encourage thought. He set up a class debate over the Mexican War and assigned me the contra side. So I pointed out, with evidence, that the United States provoked a conflict with a weaker nation to seize territory for expansion. (Abraham Lincoln opposed the war.) And I was voted down by my classmates, who had swallowed Manifest Destiny whole. 

So it's not surprising that those whose scanty schooling in history amounted to patriotic mythology resist any effort to teach an honest account of our past. 

* To learn why U.S. textbooks reduce the country's history to a kind of anodyne paste, look into Frances Fitzgerald's America Revised: History Schoolbooks in the Twentieth Century (1979). 

** I suspect that Mr. Pompeo may not be as ignorant as he sounds. He doesn't want anyone to think that the United States has a racist past extending into the present, but I expect that he knows that there was once a legal category, octoroon, to identify someone with one black great-grandparent who was therefore Black.