Sunday, January 15, 2023

Omissions and Corrections, or Why History Matters

When I was in high school, I don't recall learning anything about the Civil Rights Movement. Our American history books in the late 1950s/early 1960s focused mainly on U.S. presidents, famous military leaders, and some men whose inventions changed society (like Thomas Edison, or Alexander Graham Bell). We studied one or two women (Clara Barton and Betsy Ross come to mind) and while slavery was mentioned, not very much time was spent on it; the same was true about the "Indians"-- they were presented in the Thanksgiving story, and never appeared again. 

I came from a family of readers, and being Jewish, I knew about the Holocaust; but that wasn't taught in school either. The emphasis, as I recall, was on all the good things the U.S. had done. The fact that there were influential members of the government who insisted on restricting the number of Jews (and other immigrants) who could come here was never discussed. Truth be told, a lot of things were never discussed-- and besides, it was not an era when discussion was encouraged. Teachers taught, students took notes, and that was how it was done. Perhaps the goal was to avoid controversy, or perhaps the goal was to make sure we all turned out sufficiently patriotic. In either case, I only found out later how much was omitted from the typical history course.

I was reading an article in an educational publication recently that noted the steep decline in college students majoring in history. In numerous colleges, history is no longer required, and many students avoid studying it-- after all, who cares about what happened a century ago? How can that help anyone get a good job? Historian and author Mike Maxwell explains the rationale for this attitude: "The present system of American education emphasizes “21st century skills,” especially skills associated with the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Learning about events from the past has limited currency in this results-oriented educational environment."

Add to this unfortunate belief a bunch of self-serving politicians who have been demanding that history be taught a certain way-- reminiscent of how it was in the 1950s: no discussions of current events, no discussions of racism or sexism or antisemitism, nothing that would make any students feel "discomfort." In fact, no mention of any mistakes America ever made (to do that, said one politician, would teach students to "hate America"). These politicians, many from conservative states, insist that teachers are "indoctrinating" students, and there are now laws in some of those states that tell teachers what they can teach and how they can teach it.  

As many of you know, I'm a media historian. My expertise is in the history of broadcasting, as well as baseball history, women's history, and the history of rock & roll. I understand that there are numerous perspectives and points of view (and debates) about a wide range of issues; but I don't think avoiding them is the answer. Nor do I think going back to how things were taught (or not taught) in the 1950s is helpful. There are so many stories that still need to be told, so many events that need to be re-evaluated, in light of new information that we now have. Enforcing one "correct" way to look at history means important lessons will not be taught, and important conversations will not occur.

Frankly, I'd like to see changes to how history is taught in many schools-- not to make it partisan, and not to "indoctrinate" (which rarely occurs, by the way, but sounds wonderful for politicians to use in speeches, since it generates outrage from potential voters). I'd like to see history taught in a way that energizes students, a way that makes them curious about what it was like to live in that time, and what we can learn from how our ancestors handled the problems they encountered. Knowledge of history alone may not help someone get a job, but ignorance about history can make one more easily manipulated by folks who want to mislead, and much less able to decide what is factual, or what lessons from the past we can benefit from knowing.

So, I hope those who continue to minimize the importance of history will think again. As the philosopher George Santayana wrote, circa 1905, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." I see a lot of history repeating itself, and I see a lot of efforts to pretend past mistakes never happened. History contains some wonderful and positive lessons, about people who overcame obstacles or created something that made everyone's life better. But it also contains some lessons about times when we could have done better. Let's bring history back to life. Let's tell the stories (all the stories), write the people who were erased back in, correct the myths... In other words, let's embrace the study of history... because where we've been matters... as we try to figure out where we're going.


  1. History is supposed to be uncomfortable. How else do we learn how not to repeat the mistakes and atrocities of the past?

  2. I know why history matters, I agree with you. Common sense needs to be retaught...relearned... I think with it , we would have a sturdier foundation for our history to be retold properly.

  3. History is voluminous. History books and science books have to be revised often and the new edition purchased. We also studied current events by reading newspapers in class. Even so, much more history is unwritten, or is preserved only in ephemeral publications like newsletters, or in personal correspondence and it's the challenge of historians like yourself to find these things. But often history is missed, heros uncelebrated, and villains unrecognized as the rogues they were.