Vail Daily column: Don’t whitewash U.S. history
American folklore credits Mark Twain and Will Rogers with this homespun wisdom: “It isn’t what you know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
Many mistaken conservatives “know for sure” that America’s colonial heroes are relegated to bit parts in the Advanced Placement U.S. history curriculum.
For example, these critics were incensed that Benjamin Franklin wasn’t mentioned in the AP history course before this year’s revised guidelines reintroduced him to students. Franklin epitomizes the self-made American. His financial gains were achieved through adept capitalistic business practices. Conservatives favor teaching American history as a record of economic achievers. They promote rags to riches scenarios.
These AP history critics, like the majority who sit on the Jefferson County School Board, whitewash the fact that Franklin wasn’t glossed over in AP texts. These historical materials allow teachers to fine-tune and add to the curriculum. Guidelines encourage teachers to spend ample time teaching about Franklin. Similar discretion applies to Jefferson, Washington, Hamilton or any other founding father. Although last year’s AP history course didn’t pinpoint Franklin’s contributions to American history, it’s wrong to conclude that teachers ignore his accomplishments in classroom discussions.
American history is messy. It includes groups who stumbled as they climbed the social ladder and economic winners who made it to the pinnacle.
Slanted American history focuses on those who made it to the top. It accentuates ideals such as thrift, honesty, hard work and taking risks. Avoided are groups and individuals who practiced such virtues but didn’t advance in American society. Critics don’t want the AP history course to recognize agitators who have “encourage(d) or condone(d) civil disorder.”
Illinois State University historian Andrew Hartman, who grew up in Jefferson County a few doors from my residence, describes conservatives’ focus in U.S. history. “There are certain eternal truths, such that America was a beacon of freedom embodied in the great men of the American past such as George Washington. Such verities were not to be tampered with.”
Idealizing George Washington makes defective history. The ideal of liberty that Washington symbolizes often forces conservatives to conceal his record as a Mount Vernon slave-master.
How does U.S. history become damaged goods when “God and Country” conservatives polish its ideals and leave it at that?
Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Ron Chernow describes imperfect founding fathers. They messed up and didn’t always learn from their mistakes. In contrast, conservatives’ reading of our nation’s formative years doesn’t probe or dig deeply through research. They skim over founding fathers’ bitter arguments. Whitewashed history covers up these knockdown battles.
Chernow scolds tea party enthusiasts who influence the Jefferson Country School Board’s majority for thinking of “the founders as a like-minded group of theorists” (for capitalism) which “ends up promoting an uncomfortably one-sided reading of history.” Because the founding fathers’ ideals mesmerize conservatives, they skip what are actual events that tarnish ideals.
“The truth is that the disputatious founders — who were revolutionaries, not choir boys — seldom agreed about anything,” asserts Chernow. “Never has the country produced a more brilliantly argumentative, individualistic or opinionated group of politicians.
How does the religious right’s picture of Jefferson hide his blemishes?
They look at him through the lens of personal liberties. In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson penned the soaring ideal that “all men are created equal.” It is the bedrock upon which human dignity is built. Jefferson believed “Nature’s God” bestows such a gift on every citizen. It serves as the foundation of equality.
However, Jefferson contradicted this ideal because he owned hundreds of slaves. He didn’t envision a day dawning in American society in which blacks and whites would exist as equal citizens under the law. He thought blacks should be resettled in a colony in the Deep South or shipped back to Africa to form their own separate but equal nation, such as Liberia.
This is rough, raw historical fact about a revered Jefferson that should not be concealed. It demands being faced, grappled with and taught in AP history classes.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com).