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Monday, October 20, 2008

Whose History?

Those who can not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Same shit, different day.
-Steven King, Dreamcatcher

Why do we study history? Scholars assure us that history informs both our present and our future, that while the universe is vast with possibility, mankind tends to tread familiar and well-worn paths. Great generals painstakingly recreate battles waged beyond living memory to better understand the nature of warfare and to prepare for future engagements. Scientists use data gleaned from the past to predict tomorrow’s reality. To be sure, the past constantly nips at the heels of the present. But is that really why we so dutifully record our stories for the historians of tomorrow? Perhaps, it is. Maybe humanity, the only species on the planet known to understand its own mortality, compiles these complex annals for practical reasons. But I doubt it. It strikes me that a far more primal imperative is at work. In short, we love a good story.

Since before history was history, men and women have been telling stories. We tell stories about the gods and about the heavens and about the creatures of the earth. But mostly, we tell stories about other people. In evolutionary terms, we have been singing our own praises since we strayed from the safety of the trees and started roaming the African savannahs. History has mostly been an oral tradition, passed down from generation to generation as campfire tales and bedtime stories. Apprentice bards learned their craft from tribal elders as tales were honed and polished to suit the tongues of the tellers. It was very much more an art than a science, and a certain creative license was expected and encouraged. Then along came the written word, and suddenly that which was ethereal and fleeting achieved a degree of permanence that changed the discipline forever.

Once a story gets written down, it is much harder to edit. Books can be burned and edicts decreed, but some vestige will always remain. With this realization, the study of history took an egocentric turn. To the victor go the spoils, and no spoil is of greater importance than the ability to calcify one’s own version of the tale. This incontrovertible truth lies at the heart of every multicultural historical debate. Truth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. The history textbooks in our classrooms typically have a lot of ground to cover. The authors are limited to one version of each story, and too often, that version is the only one most students will ever hear.

To truly understand history in a way that will move mankind toward enlightenment, we must be willing to listen to all sides, to construct our truth from all the facts at hand. As educators, it is our duty to teach our students to think critically and take nothing for granted. But that does not mean throwing out the historical baby with the bath water. Historians like Howard Zinn would have us simply substitute one half-truth for another. It is the responsibility of a scientific observer to remain as impartial as possible, to acquire objective evidence before drawing any conclusion or backing any agenda. I have read Zinn’s A Peoples History, and objective it is not. There is a clear and unapologetic agenda of tearing down heroes and championing the downtrodden. If history is a popularity contest, Zinn is backing the kid with coke-bottle lenses and acne.

According to Alejandro Segura-Mora, teachers are “cultural workers” who “can, and should, challenge white supremacist values.” I agree with this in as much as I believe we should teach our students to question everything, including ourselves. It is unfortunate that students expend so much effort parsing out the “right” answers. I am lucky enough to be training in fields like mathematics and physics, where subjectivity rarely comes into play, and “right” answers are even possible. For the rest of the world, such a concept is meaningless. For historians and poets, if you think you know the answer, you probably don’t. Here in America, where we argue black and white, it is especially easy to overlook the myriad shades of gray. As the current bearers of the mantle of imperialism the stretches back for millennia, we must force ourselves to take a hard look in the mirror. To those who mock opponents of the PATRIOT Act as overly dramatic, I offer the Alien and Sedition Laws and the Japanese Internment. To those who celebrate the low prices of Wal-Mart, I reply with sweat shops and abusive child labor. These comparative histories are no less powerful for my having heard them before. They are essential to our understanding of civilization and the stories must be told.

What we should not do, what I refuse to do, is to promote any one set of values of another. My job is to teach mathematics, and it is not an easy one. I have no problem with demonstrating how mathematical problem solving can be used to inform cultural debates, but it is not my place to inject my own politics, even if they be the politics of multi-cultural awareness and equality. Our goal should be to strip away bias, not to replace it with our own. As much as I despise the dogma of “white supremacy,” I would prefer that they at least be white supremacists that can model linear equations, follow statistical arguments, and demonstrate abstract reasoning ability. To that end, I will resort to whatever strategies I deem effective, including allegedly “sexist, racist, culturally insensitive, and contemptuous” games like Oregon Trail.

There is little doubt in my mind that this popular simulation exhibits each of these qualities, but then so does history. I freely admit to spending many hours attempting to cross the Great Plains in my digital wagon train, although in the interest of full disclosure, I never made it to the Oregon frontier. On the occasional attempts where I avoided falling victim to dysentery, my adolescent male fascination with violence sidetracked me toward extended squirrel hunting expeditions. Even so, I enjoyed learning through the game for no other reason than that it was fun. That’s why we play games after all-for fun. Part of that fun comes in the challenge of winning. If the game can not be won, the wind slips out of our sails. No one would want to play a game called Trail of Tears. Slave Trade 2 won’t be flying off the shelves. Imagine spending countless hours watching your computer avatar lying side by side with countless others in the underbelly of a slave ship with the ultimate goal of arriving triumphantly in the cotton fields of the agrarian American south. How is that supposed to facilitate the love of learning? It can’t. So I guess we’ll just have to settle for the “contemptuous” Oregon Trail and remember that it is only a supplement to a balanced curriculum, not a primary source.

The issue of cultural bias is unavoidable in history class, but it exists in one form or another in all subjects. Though we can never eradicate those prejudices completely, by discussing them openly and honestly, we can significantly curtail their influence. As teachers, we should content ourselves with sparking that debate, knowing that it is often more important to ask questions than to find answers.