Friday, July 15, 2011

Don’t know much about history…

Just read that California is going to require the teaching of gay history. Swell.

Not that I have any problem acknowledging that there were gay people doing significant things throughout history, just as there are today (although the concept of “gayness” is a recent development). My problem is with the breaking of history into smaller and smaller subsets, to the point where it’s just a bunch of pieces of tile, not a mosaic.

David McCullough, one of the finest popular historians ever to put pen to paper, had this to say on the subject:

"History is often taught in categories—women's history, African American history, environmental history — so that many of the students have no sense of chronology. They have no idea what followed what."

What's more, many textbooks have become "so politically correct as to be comic. Very minor characters that are currently fashionable are given considerable space, whereas people of major consequence farther back"—such as, say, Thomas Edison—"are given very little space or none at all."

In the sixth grade, my daughter spent a lot of time learning about Africa and did a project on Tanzania. She enjoyed it, learned a lot, did well on her project. But she hasn’t learned boo about how her own country works. What she knows, she’s learned from her parents.

I’m all for a broad perspective on the wide and wonderful world, but dammit, it is not xenophobic to expect your child to learn her own history first. Sorry, but it is much more important for her to understand the U.S. Constitution than it is for her to know about Tanzania.

The Department of Education’s 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress found that only 12 percent of high-school seniors have a firm grasp of our nation's history. That's pathetic.

Most Americans don’t know in which century the Civil War occurred, much less anything about its causes and effects. Even fewer have any grasp of how the American economy developed or how the rights they take for granted were won.

Breaking history free of a fixation on the mainstream triumphalist narrative that dominated for many decades is a good thing. A great thing. But you can’t appreciate “A Renegade History of the United States” (which is wonderful, BTW) if you have no clue about what happened in the first place. If you don’t understand the narrative, a counter narrative or alternative narrative doesn’t have any resonance.

Unless there’s a grasp of the bigger picture, all the pieces of women’s history, African-American history, gay history or whatever, don’t have any context. They are rendered essentially meaningless.

When only 12 percent have a firm grasp of the subject, I’d say that we should stop worrying about teaching gay history and try just teaching history.

Jim Cornelius, Editor


  1. Jim,

    We not only do not teach history any longer - but rather selective memory based on special interest (i.e. MY Interest)groups...

    We have long made it a point not to learn FROM history.

    Our own or anyone else's.

    However, don't worry - be happy.

    Once we default on our national debt these and other "feel good" courses will be among the first to go.

    It's a $$ thing - and there's history to back that up.

  2. The concept of "gayness" is a recent development? That is a very curious statement which demonstrates a need to teach role of Gays in the history of our country. The use of the word "Gay" to describe homosexuals is recent, but the concept is not.

    As a matter of fact the introduction of the meaning for the word "gay" that we have today is a significant piece of history in itself that has its roots in a long struggle for equal rights and recognition spanning centuries.

    I would submit that my childs own history is actually pretty disconnected from things like the Constitution, or what you seem to perceive as our objective history of the USA.

    My child's history, like a huge number of Americans personal history, actually diverges from the USA and its founding fairly recently. Most of her history can be traced back to "minor characters" in villages in central and eastern europe in the 20th century. So you need to be very careful when start saying things like "..learn her own history.." as if it is axiomatic that it entails the U.S. Constitution.

    It may seem a small semantic point to you, but the U.S. Constitution is part of our Governments History, not my daughters "own history".

    Yes our Government's History is important to learn, but that is just a very small sliver of what constitutes History.

    The California law dictates that the Gay contribution be taught as an addition, not a replacement.

    History is a shared mythology we choose to believe to create a sense of unity. The narrative must be expanded to expand the sense of unity.

    To believe that the Gay narrative is minor or unimportant, is the same as believing that the female narrative is minor, the African American narrative is minor. When all these Minor characters with their minor narratives are put together, it is a major mart of our history that gets excluded until these laws are enacted.

  3. That's what happens when government and unions lead in education instead of parents and communities. We should make the Department of Education history.

  4. Anonymous 6:30

    If gay history really was an addition to a vibrant understanding of the currents and cross-currents of history that would be fine by me

    Having taken my degree in history and as a lifelong history nut, I'm all for exploring every aspect: Art, philosophy, economics, labor, social history — major characters, "minor" characters, here, there and everywhere.

    However, given the truly woeful BASIC understanding of history on the part even of undergraduates at the most prestigious universities, we have to recognize that's not how it actually works out.

    The problem is that in practice, no matter how well intentioned, breaking the study of history into disconnected "narratives" leads to exactly what McCulloch describes. The mosaic never gets put together.

    I am not arguing for fetishizing the U.S. Constitution, but I think it's reasonable to expect that a kid by the fifth or sixth grade should know the basics of how her government works and the rights she has inherent in the founding document of the nation in which she lives — no matter how recently or from where she or her ancestors arrived.

    As for my point about "gayness" — that was clumsy writing on my part. I do not mean to imply that homosexuality is a recent phenomenon, by any means. That was an aside meant to convey the fact that the subject is a little more complex than creating a category would suggest. My bad.

    What I should have said (or not) is that the concept of a fixed sexual identity — "gay" or "straight" — is a relatively recent phenomenon. There is much to suggest that things were much more fluid in western cultures right up into the 19th Century. There's some really interesting cultural history there. It just needs to be taught in a broader context.

    Jim Cornelius, Editor

  5. Jim,

    I agree wholeheartedly with your comments. I have been greatly disappointed in how little my step-daughter, who is embarking upon her high school education this September, has been taught about how our country works.

    We try to fill in the gaps, but the deficit is too great by the time they get to be a freshman.

    We recently watched a series on the history channel about the Civil War, and I was saddened by the realization of how little she had been instructed in school about the subject.

    I have always felt very strongly that if we (parents and teachers)do not teach our children where we have been, how can they possibly know where they should go so as not to repeat the mistakes of past generations.

    I appreciate you speaking out about this.

  6. Easycure,
    Taking thoughtful analysis by informed, qualified people --like Jim who actually got a degree in History-- and replacing it with slogans and politically motivated talking points doesn't illuminate anything.


    thanks for your thoughtful response to my original post.

  7. For two or three percent of our population, the gay and lesbian crowd is sure noisy !! First we give them special rights (hate crime legislation) and now their own section of "taught" history. Whats next ? Follow me on this one, gays now want the right to marry, which several State have passed, they also have been successful in getting benefits and retirement negotiated. So, why is it illegal for me to have say, two wives ? I bet I could find two or three percent of the population out there that would get behind it ? Where do we start drawing lines ? Oh, fair warning, I am not a "homophobe" so don't start down that path .. I am just concerned about granting special to rights to any select group of people.

  8. Wow, since when is being a crime victim a "special right". That is a really twisted thought.

    Having your part of history being told is not a "special right", it is an EQUAL RIGHT to the white male businessman history that is commonly taught in school.

    It is not a "special right" to marry the person you love or receive the same benefits and retirement as everyone else.

    When you think it is "special" to treat everyone the same, that is just plain wrong!

  9. Anonymous 5:30

    You miss my point completely .. Hate crimes ? When someone commits first degree murder, last time I checked thats murder ? No ... Unless you are gay and now that's a hate crime ? Excuse me ? Murder is murder, and should be prosecuted accordingly and to the letter of the law. If you are found guilty of first degree murder, no matter who is killed, that still murder and you should be sentenced accordingly. Logic: Not these days ist all about being politically correct ..

  10. Anon 6:18,

    Hate crimes legislation does not single out Gays, it says it is a crime to physically attack someone because of their race, religion, nation origin, gender or sexual orientation.

    To say that this constitutes a "special right" for gays is wrong in multiple dimensions:

    1. It is a special punishment for the perpetrator not a special right for the victim.

    2. It is about crimes motivated by bias generally, not Homophobia specifically .

    3. Motive for a crime has always had a place in the law for defining the severity of the crime. E.g. The difference between 1st degree murder and 2nd degree murder is a difference of motive and intent. So your statement that " murder is murder" is just plain wrong independent of hate crimes legislation.

    So, I did not miss your point. My point is that if you had some awareness of history in general and Gay history in particular, you would be better informed about the context of hate crime legislation.

  11. Jim is spot on in his original post. I agree with his opinion about the whole gay history topic.

    Also, I think Bill Rexford is an excellent teacher of history at the local school. He is one of the few excellent teachers that demand excellence from his students. Wish there were more of his type.

    To say that: "That's what happens when government and unions lead in education instead of parents and communities", is equal to "slogans and politically motivated talking points", is illogical at best. If you don't agree with another person's opinion, just say so, rather than expose yourself as the intolerant bigot that you seem to be.

  12. And just to be precise, I use this definition from Websters:
    "bigot: a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices;"

    Not to call you a "name", but rather to describe you in precise, descriptive terms, that fit you to a "T", IMHO. Signed, Anon 10:04pm.

  13. What exactly am I intolerant of and whom am I prejudiced against?

  14. Who's the bigot anon 10:29 ? I'm confused !! Great post Jim.

  15. Anon 6:18

    So, is it possible to lethally inject them twice because it's a hate crime ?

  16. Anon 3.53,

    Of course not. But it is possible to make a crime prosecutable where it would not be otherwise because of lack of will(due to prejudice), or lack or resources. Hate crimes legislation not only defines a class of crimes, but provides for alternate channels and resources for prosecution.

    This is a similar tactic that the federal government used to prosecute KU KLUX KLAN members of civil rights violation when local jurisdictions refused to prosecute them for murder because of the endemic racism in the community.

    Again, if actually knew something about history in general, crimes, prosecution and hate crimes legislation in particular you would know that.