Sunday, February 22, 2015

Don't Know Much About History...

Sometimes, I'm embarrassed to be an American.

Our culture's ever-dwindling respect for intelligence, education and knowledge continues to undermine the very things that once made us "exceptional;" and instead, now makes us "exceptional" in ways those who claim we are "exceptional" should not us want to be.

For this week's example, I present to you: the Oklahoma State Legislature.

It was with dumbfound amazement that I learned last week of a bill is now pending in the Oklahoma state legislature to cut all funding for AP American History.


Because, according to the bill's sponsor, Republican representative Daniel Fisher, the course focuses too much on “what is bad about America” and fails to teach “American exceptionalism,” the Tulsa World reports.
Oklahoma state Rep. Dan Fisher, R-Yukon.

Fisher, according to Time magazine, is a member of the Black Robe Regiment, "a group that seeks to dismantle the 'false wall of separation of church and state.'” 

According to this group, "all governance of and by the people was informed by way of Scripture and the Church."

Voltaire and John Locke, apparently, had nothing to do with the Enlightenment philosophy that informed the Declaration of Independence and the idea of an American republic.

Nope. Just the Bible and the people preaching it.

One suspects the Robers are unaware of (or choose to ignore) the inconvenient fact that the very first words in the very First Amendment to the Constitution (the one before the one about the guns)  reads: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..." 

Historical revisionism such as this represents the rejection of actual, recorded history in favor of the "Wishful Thinking" School of History.

I can understand a few extremists thinking this way, but 11 out of 15 elected, theoretically intelligent, educated state officials? 

Frankly, we should all find that more than a little scary.

One can be sympathetic to some extent. 
"America" is hard and needs well-informed citizens 
to function properly.
After all, America is hard.

We fought for freedom, then we fought to keep slaves. 

We fought for the right to vote, then denied it to women and blacks.

We urge the world to give us their tired, their poor, their huddled masses yearning to breath free, then we advocate building a wall to keep them out.

Such thoroughly American dichotomies can sorely test F. Scott Fitzgerald's definition of "a first-rate intelligence" as being "the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."

It can be difficult to deal with the fact that there are some parts of the short and often brutal history of this country that are not so glorious; periods which are, in every way imaginable, shameful.

After all, genocide, ethnic cleansing and slavery, just to name a few, are generally considered crimes these days, even by most Americans, however grudgingly.

But we should be teaching our children to face those mistakes, learn from them and continue to strive to make us better; not teach them to be willfully ignorant of everything that might make you question your country or, by proxy, your government.

Questioning your government is America's first principle, or should be. 

And its important to remember that most of the things Mr. Fisher and his black-robed friends would have us unlearn were undertaken, sanctioned or at least allowed by our government at the time.

Purposefully raising an uninformed generation will not make a better country. It is a dereliction of our responsibility as parents and citizens.

Sticking our fingers in our children's ears and yelling "na na na na na, they can't hear you!" really won't help them understand why these terrible things happened. 

Isn't that supposed to be the idea of education? Understanding.

You know, so we don't repeat some of these mistakes? 

Doesn't erasing from the history books our nation's treatment of Native Americans, African-Americans, Japanese-Americans, poor Americans, Jewish Americans, Irish Americans, to name just a few, disrespect the suffering they endured at our nation's hands?

Can we really be advocating washing our hands of responsibility for those chapters of our history? That hardly sounds like the actions of an enlightened or courageous nation.

But then, we don't much favor enlightenment these days, preferring instead, a thought-free, pre-packaged patriotism that rejects the central act of patriotism as practiced by this nation's often-invoked founders -- questioning the course of one's nation and those leading it, and the right to do so.

And to responsibly exercise that right, those founders believed in universal public education; in an education that teaches students to be adult citizens, citizens who can think critically for themselves given all the facts, not regurgitate mindless pablum about how America is never wrong.

True patriotism, after all, should be defined as the love of one's country despite its past mistakes, and a desire to learn and improve the country as a result of those mistakes, not to pretend they never existed. 

For as the mistake disappears, so too does the lesson it teaches future generations.

Instead, think of patriotism like family. Just as we love our children and our parents -- and just as they love us -- despite all the faults involved, we should love America for what it is, warts and all, and always strive to be better.

Isn't that what unconditional love -- the love a true patriot is supposed to feel for his or her country -- all about?

Nobody's perfect, why must we pretend our country is? "America, love her only if she's perfect" seems somehow LESS patriotic to me.

Perhaps author G.K. Chesterton put it best when he wrote: "'My country, right or wrong,' is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, 'My mother, drunk or sober.'”

Given the Black Robe Regiment school of thought's rejection of historical fact, I consider them good candidates for the rejection of unwelcome scientific facts as well. 

As a result, I consider them unlikely to invent the world's first time machine.

So if they can't go back in time to change unpleasant chapters of our history, the next best thing is to try to make sure no one reads those chapters -- particularly children.

After all, the best way to control how America withstands the judgement of history is to keep certain things from being entered into evidence.

But the ham-handedness of this effort is somewhat re-assuring.

Consider that the text of Fisher's bill also insists students learn "a long list of primary documents that it says must be taught in all U.S. history classrooms going forward. Among the titles are the sermon known as 'A Model of Christian Charity' by John Winthrop, the sermon known as 'Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God' by Jonathan Edwards and the 'give me liberty or give me death' speech made by Patrick Henry in 1775," according to Time.

Never mind that those who take AP American History have already learned these basics of American history or, if they haven't, are most likely to learn then where else? In AP AMERICAN HISTORY!.

"I don’t know of any history teacher who is worth his or her salt that doesn't teach all of these already,” Eugene Earsom, who taught social studies in the Oklahoma public school system for 20 years and was the director of the social studies curriculum for the state’s Department of Education for another seven, told Time.

Perhaps we should take heart that opposition to this idiocy is already building and, in a particularly satisfying irony, has sparked interest and debate among the very AP American History students Fisher's bill meant to de-educate.

Matt Holtzen, an AP U.S. history teacher at Enid High School in Enid, Oklahoma, told Time, "the day after the education committee voted on the bill, his 23 AP students came to class incensed. 'It’s gotten them excited. They've been contacting their members of the Legislature, many of them for their first time. As a social studies teacher, that’s exactly what I want to see: engagement.'”

Let us hope that Alexis de Tocqueville was right when he wrote "the greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults."

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