Thursday, July 9, 2015

Textbooks Standards and the Limits of Human Knowledge

Catastrophic evil grabs headlines. I tend to think, though, that we're less endangered by the comparatively rare instances of spectacular depravity than by the the toxic and altogether commonplace combination of arrogance and ignorance.

Consequently, what's most exasperating about neo-Confederates and their implicit fellow travelers is their utterly absurd and totally unjustified attitude of learned superiority. They defend a repugnant government. They idolize an evil society. But what I find most annoying--rather than horrifying--is the arrogance with which they proclaim their ignorance. Historically indefensible attempts to minimize the centrality of slavery to the Confederate cause are invariably followed by the pompous demand that their opponents "read some history."

Look, I know history is complex, and that all generalizations in historical study overlook caveats and nuance and exceptions to the rule. But unless we're to do away with generalization altogether--in which case the study of history would not exist, and in its place we'd have archival cataloguing of meaningless and disconnected scraps of information--we have to live with some degree of simplification. As John Lukacs is fond of saying, "Generalizations are like brooms--they're meant to sweep."

So we must generalize at times and in places or give up on historical study. Given this inevitability, we simply have to evaluate which generalizations are more justified and which are less. And if there ever was a defensible, sweepingly true generalization, it's this: the Confederate states seceded and fought a war to defend, extend, and perpetuate an economic and social system defined by--founded and entirely dependent upon--race-based chattel slavery.

The historical evidence is overwhelming--from the declarations of secession to the arguments of southern secession commissioners to the statements of the major political figures of the Confederate States of America to the Confederate Constitution. Meanwhile, alternate theories are indefensible--bad faith distortions largely manufactured by Lost Causers after 1865 as a fig leaf to disguise their slavery-centered revolt. Southern states and the C.S.A. were eager to trample states' rights in defense of slavery. The Fugitive Slave Act, for instance, was arguably the most invasive federal law ever passed. The tariff was lower in the 1850s than in most of the previous decades,* and references to it among secessionists were sporadic and inconsistent. It's true that during the Civil War Abraham Lincoln acted outside of Constitutional bounds, but as the war went on so too did Jefferson Davis and the Confederate government concentrate power at the federal level at the expense of the states.**

It was with great interest, then, that I listened to Diane Rheem's show yesterday on the Texas textbook kerfuffle.*** Obviously I have very little sympathy with those who wish to believe that states' rights was just as central to secession as slavery--much less with those who want nonsensically to treat slavery as a "side issue."

As the panelists discussed the Texas textbook standards--which certainly appear to be frankly ridiculous--a vision of a universalized, national history education emerged from some as the solution to the Texas problem. Early on, Diane Rheem asked, "But wouldn't you think there would be sort of a standardized history text that every child in America would learn the same things about?" Throughout the show, various panelists lamented that this was not the case.

As repugnant as Texas' standards appear to be, I also have to admit that I am deeply uncomfortable with this nationalized vision for historical education. Rheem and her panelists are unconsciously subscribing to the notion that if we just get enough experts together, we can conjure up one single historical account that should suffice to explain everything to everyone.

I'll defer to Lukacs again, who writes that
...there is something ludicrously naive in the image... of a young talented Ph.D., working amid his archives, say, thirty years hence, an American Scholar wearing rimless glasses, perhaps of the University of Texas, writing the Definitive History, in order to present the nation with the Objective Historical Truth. There is no such thing as a definitive history, because there is no such thing as an objective history. All there is is the last word on the subject. But in history, unlike in other human conventions, including law, the last word on the subject means something very different from the case is now closed. "The last word on the subject" means, rather, that the case has been reopened, as indeed it will be reopened, again and again, in the minds of human beings, in our minds. [from Historical Consciousness; emphasis original]
It should not be difficult to see the absurdity of a national textbook--or even firmly defined national standards. Some decisions about teaching history are simple issues of truth versus falsehood. Teaching that the Southern states seceded because of states' rights and not slavery would be a good example of the latter. But even when you've rooted out all the obvious inaccuracies, there's much to history that isn't clear-cut. Standards should be variable because history varies across time and place--and because class time is oh-so-terribly finite.

Leaving Jim Crow out of American history would be flat-out wrong, since it lasted nearly a century, defined a substantial region, and affected the entire country. But would it make sense to have a national standard dictating that the whole country spend x amount of time on the subject, cover figures a, b, and c, and reach conclusions y and z? The Deep South assuredly ought to spend a great deal of time and effort learning about it--but I'm not sure that, say, Alaska or Wyoming must of necessity apportion as many weeks. Within Jim Crow, Tennessee schools might rightly spend more time on Ida B. Wells than the rest of the country, while Chicagoans ought to learn much more about "Redlining" and racial discrimination in housing. Beyond Jim Crow, Coloradans should learn most about the Sand Creek Massacre, Minnesotans ought to study the Dakota War of 1862, and Floridians should focus on the Seminole Wars.

Yes, it would be wonderful if every student in America thoroughly learned about each of these events and figures. As Diane Rheem incisively asked near the conclusion of yesterday's show, "If you do not know the past, how can you possibly engage realistically in the present?" But the truth is that class time is limited, and students are far better served by deep engagement on a few topics rather than superficial study of many. A national standard, therefore, cannot help but be either oppressively inflexible or unpardonably superficial.

Of course it's true that individual states and regions are likely to distort or abuse history. But a national standard is far from a guarantor of historical efficacy. As some of the other panelists on Rheem's show indicated, we do have something like a national standard already. And it pretty much stinks. James Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, pointed out that while "we don't have a uniform curriculum in any subject," what we do have in America is a very uniform set of textbooks used by most everyone. There are only, Loewen said, "about six of them nowadays, because of publisher consolidation... I read them all, all six. And they just about said the same thing."

When I started teaching, I originally would glance through the five or six different textbooks I had when planning a lesson. Soon, however, I figured out that they were all pretty much the same, except that the older textbooks had a whole lot less to say about women and minorities. So, again, we largely do have a national curriculum, and it's pretty lousy.

One of my pet examples of this is the difference between the textbook treatment of the Spanish-American and the Philippine-American Wars. The later still gets almost no attention whatsoever, despite it being far longer, far deadlier, and far more indicative of where United States imperialism was headed in the twentieth century. But it was never a declared war, it happened really far away from the United States and largely out of the public eye, and there were no mustachioed future presidents charging up hills.

National standards might seem like a good idea to Rheem and her panelists today, when we rightfully wish to stamp out neo-Confederate abuses of history. If the history of teaching American history is an indication, though, the standards we create today will likely reveal our own terrible blind spots and delusions to future generations.

But like all generations, we are arrogant about how much we know, and we're damnably ignorant of our own limitations.

*Granted, this doesn't mean that the average Southerner did not (wrongly) believe otherwise--just as plenty of Americans today get riled up by the distortions of politicians and pundits.
**I'm reading an interesting study which implicitly suggests that Lincoln's extra-constitutional actions--and his unwillingness to defend his own actions as constitutional--fits in with Thomas Jefferson's theories of executive power.
***I listened to it as I was running errands, so I did not hear the whole episode.