The Strange Career of American History
C. Bradley Thompson
April 1, 1995
American history sure isn’t what it used to be. There was a time, not too long ago, when students were required to study the great events, the magnanimous statesmen, the brave warriors, the brilliant inventors, and the ingenious industrialists of American history. There was a time when American students knew in intimate detail the heroic story of the American Revolution and the tragedy of the Civil War. American school children once learned about honesty from George Washington, justice from Thomas Jefferson, integrity from John Adams, independence from Daniel Boone, oratory from Daniel Webster, poetry from Abraham Lincoln, ingenuity from Thomas Edison, dedication from the Wright Brothers, and courage from Sergeant York. They memorized the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address. At its best, history was philosophy teaching by examples.
The American pageant was a grand story of epic scale and heroic accomplishment. In short, the history of America was the history of freedom. Today, however, American history is something very different. In the last year, the American people have had an opportunity to observe the bizarre world of American historians. Several public controversies have exposed the covert hijacking of American history by extremist, far left-wing academics.
How is American history taught today? What are our junior and high-school students learning in their civics classes? It goes without saying these days that the colonization of North America represents the greatest act of genocide in world history; that the founding fathers were racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, phallo-logo-Eurocentric bigots; that the winning of the American West was an act of capitalist pillage; that the so-called "Robber Barons" forced widows and orphans into the streets; that the greatest consequence of World War II was the liberation of the American housewife; that the greatest threat to American freedom was Senator Joseph McCarthy; that hidden in the closets of most white Americans is a robe and hood.
You might think that I’m making all this up or that I’m exaggerating. I can assure you that I am not. I spent five years studying history at an Ivy League university where I was routinely told that America was a cancer on human civilization, and I regularly attend conferences for professional historians where this kind of thing is standard fare. But don’t take my word for it. Let the historians speak for themselves.
In recent months, a very public and nasty debate has erupted across the fruited plain over how American history should be taught. The catalyst that ignited the firestorm was the recent publication of the National Standards for United States History. These guidelines, sanctioned by the federal government and paid for by the American taxpayer, were put together by a committee of college professors and high-school teachers. If or when these standards are approved by the Clinton administration’s Education Standards and Improvement Council, almost all American students from grades five through twelve will be forced to learn their history according to the new guidelines. These standards will be used as the model from which school textbooks are written and curricula planned.
So what’s all the fuss? Well, think of an American history where George Washington, the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address are barely mentioned, while the first nineteenth-century meeting of feminists at Seneca Falls and the rise of the American Federation of Labor are mentioned over eighteen times. J. P. Morgan, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and the Wright Brothers are not mentioned at all while Harriet Tugman appears six times. The great speeches of Daniel Webster are never mentioned but students are asked to analyze Pat Buchanan’s speech at the 1992 Republican convention. And then of course there are the truly great villains of American history. Senator Joseph McCarthy and McCarthyism are mentioned 19 times.
Students are asked to hold a mock trial for John D. Rockefeller. His crime: "Knowingly and willfully participat[ing] in unethical and amoral business practices designed to undermine traditions of fair and open competition for personal and private aggrandizement in direct violation of the common welfare." Students are asked how "European beliefs in private property and their claims to lands that were not "settled" or "improved" differed from Native American beliefs that land was not property, but entrusted by the Creator to all living creatures for their common and shared use." Students are also asked to examine the role played by women in the "New" Ku Klux Klan.
Who put these standards together? The grantee of $1.75 million from the federal government was the National Center for History in the Schools at UCLA. The head of the Center and leader of the committee was Gary Nash, a well-known Marxist historian. The much more interesting fact is that the monies were first granted by the Bush administration.
But wait, things get better. Recently, the Wall Street Journal reported that Apple Computer had pulled from the shelves one of its CD-ROM histories of America called "Who Built America?" Apparently some bigoted and reactionary parents had been calling Apple with complaints. In this three-dimensional, talking history of America, young children and their parents were surprised when they clicked under one label called "Male-Male Intimacy in the West" and the screen lit up with a photograph of two apparently naked men, sitting together in a pond. The accompanying text reads: "Some men were drawn to the frontier because of their attraction to men."
So who are all these American historians and what do they read, write and teach? Recently, the Organization of American Historians published a survey on "What American Historians Think." The results are revealing. When asked "What three or four books of any kind have most influenced you?", eight of their 12 favorite authors were socialists or Marxists. Karl Marx was more popular than William Shakespeare, Alexis de Tocqueville, or Mark Twain. The Autobiography of Malcolm X was more popular than The Federalist Papers. When asked "What three or four historical monographs do you most admire?" the top five were leftists of one stripe or another.
One gets an even better understanding of what today’s historians are up to by examining what they write about. Flipping through the major history journals, one will find such cutting-edge studies as: "Sacrificing Queers and Other ’Proletarian’ Artifacts"; "Emotion, Identity, and Social Movements: The Effects of Jeffrey Dahmer’s Serial Killings on Milwaukee’s Lesbian and Gay Community"; "Sanitary Services and Decision Making in Houston, 1876-1945"; and my personal favorite, "Marxism and Historical Knowledge: Tony Bennett and the Discursive Turn."
Attendees of the 1995 conference of the Organization of American Historians were enlightened by such panels as: "Re(ed)ifying the Other: Gendered Discourses and Social Identity From the Outside In." Papers delivered on this particular panel included: "What A Drag: Women, Transvestism, and Gender Identity in the West"; and, "Perspectives of Gender and Environment: Modoc and White Concepts of the ’Other’ in the Lower Pacific Northwest."
Finally, what kinds of courses are the historians and humanities professors offering to our future high school teachers? At one Ivy League school, $25,000 a year will buy you the following courses: "Introduction to Lesbian and Gay Studies"; "Producing Asian American Sexuality"; "Histories of the Early Modern Body: Scientia Sexualis/Ars Erotica"; "The Adventures of Robin Hood: Wild or Tame?"; "Daughters of Darkness: Lesbian Tropes"; "Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars: Unnatural Acts and Split Britches"; "Third World Feminism"; "Queer Theory: Sexual and Racial Politics of African American Women Novelists"; "Vampirism: From Colonization to Cross Dressing"; and finally, "Iron Johns: Power, Pain & Violence."
Those who control the past control the future. In addition to what children learn at home from their parents, the study of history in our grade schools and high schools is the one experience that most affects the way our young people think and feel about America. Our identity as citizens, our allegiance and loyalty to America, is formed to a very large degree in youth while reciting the poetry of the Gettysburg Address and the Pledge of Allegiance and in learning the principles and great deeds of a free country. History can teach us patriotism or it can teach us shame.
In his eulogy to Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln said that Clay "loved his country partly because it was his own country, but mostly because it was a free country; and he burned with a zeal for advancement … of human liberty, human right, and human nature." Like Clay and Lincoln, Americans have always loved their country and its history not so much because it was theirs, or out of a filiopietistic devotion, but rather because they understood that the principles on which America was founded were and are right, just, and good.
Today, unfortunately, our children are being taught to despise America because of an evil past recently discovered by historians. By debunking the principles and great deeds of the American past and by dethroning our most cherished heroes, today’s college professors are destroying in our youth the natural reverence and patriotic attachment that is vital to the civic health of any regime. We have as a nation been living off of the cultural and moral capital that has accumulated since the time of our founding. In recent decades, however, we have been eating into the principal of our national savings, our national heritage.
A nation that hates itself cannot last. We do well in times like this to remember the words of country singer and patriot, Mere Haggard: "When you’re runnin’ down my country, you’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me."
C. Bradley Thompson is Assistant Professor of History and of Political Science at Ashland University and Coordinator of Publications and Special Programs at the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs.