Don’t Know Much About History

Let’s talk about stupid. According to Rep. Jamie Raskin, several  people called Nancy Pelosi’s office on January 7, 2021 to ask about things they had lost while they were rioting.

Rioters were calling “asking whether there was a lost and found because they forgot their phone there, or they left their purse or what have you,” Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., told Insider on Friday in a Q&A.

Police officers swiftly took down information from the callers, Raskin said.

“The officers quickly got on the phone and said, yeah, just give us your name, your address, your social, you know, and we’ll tie up those loose ends,” Raskin said.

Derp on steroids. But what this tells us is that these people hadn’t yet realized they had done something wrong. Rep. Raskin, a constitutional scholar, observed that many insurrectionists had no concept of the separation of powers and didn’t understand that a president has no constitutional authority to invite people to break into the Capitol and interfere with Congress. They seemed to think if they were doing what the President asked, then it was okay. And I suspect he is right.

Righties fetishize the Constitution the way they fetishize the Bible. Invoking either the Constitution, or the Bible, is simply to claim authority for their position, whatever it is, even if there is no connection between their position or either document. These documents have a mystical power that confers special privilege and authority on conservative white people, you see.

Another constitutional scholar wrote a couple of years ago that the alt-right has created an alt-constitution.

The Alt-constitution – in sharp distinction from the real Constitution – tolerates no restrictions on speech, guns or private property, does not concede that federal laws trump state and local law – although the supremacy clause of Article 6 of the Constitution clearly indicates otherwise – and incorporates the principle of separate but equal.

For the far right, the meaning of every provision in the Constitution is plain or discerned easily by appealing to what the Founders intended. Or failing that, to Holy Scripture.

Of course, they have no idea what the Founders intended, as they also have developed an alt-history that bears no resemblance to what really happened at the Constitututional Convention. And they don’t know Holy Scripture any better. Often the two documents weirdly merge in their minds, as when they decide the Second Amendment protects a “God-given right” to carry any firearm they want to carry, without restriction. That’s a position that’s indefensible either by “original intention” or in the Bible, which was written before the invention of firearms.

Here’s some more derp. Someone in the Virginia legislature, trying to head off the evil Marxist influence of Critical Race Theory in public schools, proposed a bill that listed what parts of American history children ought to know. These include, the bill said, the famous debate between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Which, of course, never happened. Lincoln debated Stephen Douglas, who was a nationally known big shot in his day and who had a big impact on U.S. history. Alas, Stephen, we hardly know ye now.

There is a knee-jerk assumption — and I’ve run into self-identified Democrats who hold it also — that American history as it has been taught in American schools, from elementary school through undergraduate Ameerican History 101, is simply the accurate and unbiased version of history, and to introduce any part of Critical Race Theory would be to introduce politics and dogma to history, instead of simply teaching history.

But the fact is, history as it is taught to American’s school children is nothing but the bastard offspring of a whole lot of politics and dogmas going back to the beginning of the nation. The Thanksgiving Story we all learned and drew crayon pictures of way back when is mostly just a myth, for example.

Another example is Reconstruction. When I was a public school student of the 1950s and 1960s, we were taught the Gone With the Wind revisionist version of Reconstruction, in which a vengeful North sent evil carpetbaggers to the South to oppress the poor plantation owners. Absolute garbage. But now it appears Reconstruction is not being taught at all.

In social studies standards for 45 out of 50 states and the District of Columbia, discussion of Reconstruction is “partial” or “non-existent,” according to historians who reviewed how the period is discussed in K-12 social studies standards for public schools nationwide. In a report produced by the education nonprofit Zinn Education Project, the study’s authors say they are concerned that American children will grow up to be uninformed about a critical period of history that helps explain why full racial equality remains unfulfilled today.

If you aren’t a history nerd and don’t know much about Reconstruction, you probably can’t appreciate what a shocking mess that period devolved into, and how much a lot of it is relevant to what’s going on today. I’m sure the biggest reason it isn’t taught is that white racists can’t bear to hear about it.

The Civil War also isn’t taught well at all, which has allowed many generations of white children to be able to blissfully deny that the war was about slavery. As I wrote in another post in 2020,

The Lost Cause is, of course, a mythology that grew in the South after the Civil War. And at the hands of generations of Southern historical scholars, the mythology supplanted the real history of the war, as well as the real history of slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and a lot of other things. The Lost Cause denied that the primary — and secondary, and tertiary — reason so many slave states seceded and formed the Confederacy was to protect the institution of slavery. Instead, the myth insisted, the Civil War was fought to preserve some noble, agrarian way of life that was principled and free. Seriously. And this way of life was ripped away from the poor victimized South by those dirty northern industrialists for some vague reason that never made coherent sense. And if you know anything at all about the real history, you know what a pile of excréments de taureau that is.

It’s only been over the past 40 years or so that new scholarship has challenged the Lost Cause myth and corrected the record. So if today you are an American history major or take graduate level classes in American history, you probably get well documented facts that paint a very different picture than most of us were taught. But I don’t know this has trickled down to what freshmen learn in American History 101. The article on Reconstruction teaching says, “In interviews, teachers said they had barely learned about the period themselves and would need more professional development to feel comfortable teaching it in-depth.”

Reconstruction probably can’t be taught without pissing off a lot of the parents, who are likely to show up at School Board meetings while exercising their God-given right to carry firearms. For that reason, I don’t blame schools for wanting to skip it. But if you don’t know Reconstruction, or why the institution of slavery forced the nation into civil war, or the truth about the Jim Crow period, then you don’t know American history. Not really.

Another way that politics and dogma colors what’s taught in schools is through the textbooks. Textbook publishers are great big companies that are in the business to sell books. That doesn’t make them bad. But it also means they tend to create products that their market — especially the state textbook adoption committees — will buy.

A big chunk of my so-called career was in the textbook industry. Over several years I worked for a now-eliminated company called Silver Burdett, then Prentice Hall, then Simon & Schuster. Once separate companies, the education departments of those three companies all merged and are now called Pearson Education. I also worked for Scholastic and McGraw Hill. Most of that time I did production management, which means I wasn’t doing writing and editng but pulling all the pieces of the books together and getting them typeset, printed, and bound. But it gave me a great front-row seat on how textbooks happen, and how the publishers are very, very careful to create textbooks that won’t be too “conroversial” to sell. A lot of self-censorship goes on.

Some states have textbook adoption committees, which is usually a panel of people appointed by the governor who review textbooks and decide which ones may be used in that state. If a textbook is not adopted, the publisher loses the entire public school market in that state. And if it’s a big state, like Texas or California, that gives the textbook adoption committees a lot of power about what goes in textbooks. I got my first textbook job in the 1980s, and this was a long-running issue then already.

The Texas textbook adoption committee is especially notorious. I’ve written about this before. See:

Textbook publishers do produce state-specific editions, although for cost reasons the differences are minor and, back in my day, accommodated by a black plate change during the press run.

El-hi (elementary through high school) books are heavily illustrated — in color! — and much of the cost in producing them is in what’s called pre-press, or getting ready to print. Although technology is always changing, I believe big print runs of many tens or of thousands of books at a time are still done using four-color process, which means printing with four plates — cyan, magenta, yellow, black. If you’re only changing a little bit of text here and there, you can change black plates as needed, but the color illustrations have to remain where they are. Changing all the plates for each state edition would drive the cost up more than you can imagine. So that puts limits on what the publisher can do, editorially. If Texas demands specific language that absolutely will not sell in California that can be accommodated, but only if it’s just a few sentences here and there.

Bottom line, the textbooks end up tip-toeing around any topic that might piss off anybody — especially race and evolution, but not limited to that — which means the textbook adoption committess really do dictate what is taught in all the states.

And the moral is, American history as it has been taught since before any of us were born is a sorry-ass thing incrusted by many layers of politics and dogma and bullshit. So now we’ve got school boards and parents, most of whom don’t know American history from a toaster, up in arms about Critical Race Theory, which isn’t even a thing that would be “taught” outside of graduate schools. And they’re using that as an excuse to push even harder against real history. What they really want to do is indoctrinate children with even more alt-right mythology and propaganda than the kids are learning already. And I bet the kids still won’t learn about separation of powers, either.

19 thoughts on “Don’t Know Much About History

  1. Thanks very much for this one.  I just donated $500 to help keep you going.  This is one of the best columns I've seen recently anywhere. – RevZafod

    • I am deeply grateful and humbled. I will try to be worth it. Seriously, I am not exactly affluent, and were it not for family willing to take me in I’d probably be in a homeless shelter somewhere. I don’t do well in cardboard boxes.

  2. You're just a little bit older than I am, maha. 

    But despite that (admitedly trifling) age difference, and the fairly large geographical distance between our home towns, I'd bet that my NY City & State public school American history textbooks probably weren't too much different than yours.

    At one point in my young life, it occurred to me that I was probably getting some kind of "American History:  Lite and White" version of reality, and I wanted to find out the truth. 

    Or at least, get closer to the truth. 

    And so, "I decided to do my own research." 😉

    Let me tell you about the book that opened my eyes up wide to the kind sanitized ahistorical American "history" I was being taught in school:  "Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee." 

    One evening, when I was in my early teens, my Father brought this great, this remarkable, this "real" not "reel*" – if you grok what I mean – book about a very dark part of our American history home from the library, mixed in with his usual eclectic mix of books, both fiction and non. 

    I saw it. 

    I grabbed it before he could. 

    I opened it. 

    And I was transfixed.

    I think I read it in one night.  Maybe a little bit longer.  But certainly not more than three days. 

    I drank that history in like a parched and weary traveler does cool water at the end of a long and dusty journey.

    This book was about the "White Man's" genocide.  The long and tortured ways we eliminated Native Americans throughout the 19th Century.  And continue to do so to this day in many respects, according to a number of current activists.

    The scope and scale of the atrocities committed could have inspired The Nazi's.  And apparenty did – according to many modern historians.

    While you're reading it, if you ain't openly sobbing, whiping-away snot, and gushing tears like a fire-hydrant, you either ain't human, or you're a KKKonservative.  But I repeat myself. 

    Once I read that book, I understood the bullshit that I was being taught.
    I realized that I had to read and seperate the historical wheat that I needed, from the "Whitewashed" chaff I didn't. 

    I began by reading some of the historians I was told were the most accurate/expert.  And also, the ones who were the best writers.

    And that education continues to this day.

    A mind is a lot like a shark: It has to keep moving forward, or it dies.

    *What I mean by "Real" v. "Reel" – as you've probably figured out if you're a maha reader – comes down to separating the messy, dirty, gritty, ugly, "real" (actual) historical reality in America, from the sanitized, literally "White-washed, version of our history, as if it was written as a series of lame and simplistic plots for movies.  Or an episode of a Western or pioneer TV series.

    Holy shit! 



    I done left you this here mountain o' word-turds, fer you to read – or not – on this bitterly cold Saturday night.



    • Nothing to be sorry for gulag, great comment. I never read "Wounded Knee" but have heard about it forever. Someday I'll get to it..

    • I've said this before at some long-gone site on the internet: Dee Brown's book is a gut-wrenching heartbreaking account of the losing of the west; it would probably be too much to ask for it to be accurate as well. In point of fact Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee does not set out to be a true account, but rather one that is biased in the opposite direction of most popular accounts.

      I had a similar experience to the one you describe when the book came out in paperback decades ago. Although I'd visited sites where supposedly important battles had taken place, had seen gravestones in old cemeteries with the weathered words "killed by Indians" on them, had been through cultural centers associated with reservations, I felt that I knew nothing about the actual course of events. The topic had been inexplicably skipped in school–and in books dealing with aspects of American history that I had read since. When I saw the book on the rack at a local store, I picked up a copy and took it home with me.

      I read it in one night. The sun was coming up when I finished the chapter on Wounded Knee itself, and put the book down. I cannot describe the emotional effect it had on me–but I do have to say that the book lived up to my expectations in one respect–it fixed in my mind the general course of events for the period it covered, and I'll give Brown credit for that.

      But since that time I have done quite a bit of actual research–the kind that involves going to repositories of old documents and deciphering the intricacies of a nineteenth-century hand in fading ink on yellowed paper, or (worse yet) slowly transcribing a microfilmed version of such documents, or physically visiting a location to determine if possible what the participants had actually done and experienced in that place. And, well, the book doesn't hold up.

      For example–Dee Brown claims to be using Native American accounts as a basis, but the chapter on the Modoc War relies primarily on books written by a white participant (who was sympathetic to the Modocs, true) and by a Native American who was a child at the time (his parents were interpreters for the US Army), even though many accounts by adult participants (in the form of newspaper interviews particularly) were available. Long-debunked legends are repeated as true. The chapters on the Ute war and the Wounded Knee incident both have major omissions and distortions that make them, well, ahistorical to say the least. And this is just what I remember.

      So yes, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is a powerful book, a gripping read–and it may even be "true" in some higher sense that leaves aside its lower falsities–but it should not be confused with history.

  3. And we don't even know what a slide rule is or for.   That we elected a leader who claimed intelligence and threw around the names of high-status schools of higher education and showed no indication of any respect at all for national or international achievement in the arts, humanities, or the sciences, who showed the world the competency of our electorate.  I must confess my transcript has a three-hour credit at the graduate level for a course entitled Philosophy of Education.  What I do know about Education and Philosophy was not covered in this class.  We had a text for the class I think, but no one read it and even buying it was a waste of money.  As far as I know everyone who showed up got an A.  You were just buying a credential in what they called professional education.  We all knew we were just bodies filling a classroom more a social occasion than a graduate level course fitting even the title of the course. 

    As I recall this course reminded me of my required courses for high school graduation in what the American Philosophy of Education calls education for democracy.  When we elected TFG we showed the world that our educational system deserves an F in meeting the minimum standards in educating its citizens in educating them as citizens of democracy. 

    We managed to elect a U.S. Senator in this state that got credentials as a medical doctor who Dr. Fauci got caught calling a moron on a hot mike last week.  He got elected over a former Republican who would never IMO bring such embarrassment to our state.  If we had courses with real standards and grades for high school classes in education for democracy, many students would never get out of high school.  We can see this by the competency of our elected officials and their behavior in public.  You really are a blaring incompetent if you get that kind of invalidation from a professional at the level of Dr. Fauci.  I am sure he did not mean his remark to be public, diagnostic, or accurate, but more a statement of disgust at our state's choice of a national representative.  I totally agree with him in that regard.  If we actually educated our students for the goal of giving them the skills to be citizens of a democracy he would have never been elected.  Not only that, but TFG would, as the world knows, never held his credentials either. How long will it take to live that error down?

    • Kurt Vonnegut: True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.

  4. We're to the point in technology where the "textbook" is more practical online than in a backpack. That changes the rules entirely because alterations are much easier to make. CA & TX don't have to rule the textbook content as they have in the past.

    That cuts two ways – FL has a rabid governor who would love to control content in schools. He's working on putting cameras in all classrooms now. BUT, can it cut two ways – can the Department of Education withhold funds from states when the history books start to resemble fiction? 

    OR, will liberal parents be able to sue for what has been omitted/prohibited in the classroom when it is significant and objective fact?  No matter how many angry Trumpsters show up at a School Board Meeting, 2+2 does NOT  = 5.  The Civil War WAS about slavery. After losing the war, the South tried to hold back the rights guaranteed by the Civil War Amendments (and succeeded to a great degree.) The KKK was not a social club. Mark Twain wrote an essay, "The United States Of Lyncherdom." For a reason! Four decades after the Civil War, random atrocities against African-Americans were rampant!  The Black Wall Street Massacre in Tulsa happened! If all these things are excluded from history texts, are not parents being defrauded by the non-education being passed off as teaching? 

    I'm OK with alternate and opposing points of view being introduced. That's preferable to having the Department of Education act as the Council Of Nicea and determine the only dogma you are allowed to hear. But when the alternate narrative is uncoupled from evidence and fact, the "flat-earth" version should be brief and offered with a warning that in a free society, you can believe what you want but the testable material will be based on fact.

    Gotta agree with the Rev above, Maha – you don't get credit for the quality of independent thought that goes into many of your posts. 

    • We’re to the point in technology where the “textbook” is more practical online than in a backpack. That changes the rules entirely because alterations are much easier to make. CA & TX don’t have to rule the textbook content as they have in the past.

      I’ve been saying that for about thirty years now. Also, about the time I left the biz there was a lot of talk about using new digital technology that would allow for smaller, even custom, print runs of textbooks at much less cost. I don’t know where they are with that, though.

  5. This:

    Rep. Raskin, a constitutional scholar, observed that many insurrectionists had no concept of the separation of powers and didn’t understand that a president has no constitutional authority to invite people to break into the Capitol and interfere with Congress. They seemed to think if they were doing what the President asked, then it was okay. And I suspect he is right.

    … really encapsulates what's so horrible about the Republican Party today. The Republican Party was the only entity that could have told wingnut Trump supporters (but I repeat myself) that the election was fair. If Democrats said it was fair, well, Trump supporters don't trust Democrats.

    And, honest to goodness, if it *were* true that:
    The election was stolen,
    Everyone knows it,
    And yet, it is going to be certified, as if it was a free and fair election

    … well, some very drastic action would be called for. So Republicans really should have stomped all over his lies, and they didn't.

    And it's like, that's a super horrible betrayal of your constituency, to let them think an election was being stolen, because some WATB wasn't man enough to admit he lost, fair and square.

    • HBO has a documentary on January 6 called Four Hours at the Capitol, of which I’ve seen about half. I’ve been watching it in bits and pieces. It’s very good, although what I’ve seen so far just presents the events of the day without attempting any larger context. Most of the POV in the first half is from the insurrectionists, in interviews and stuff they filmed of themselves. One thing that struck me is how often the insurrectionists hollered about “the Constitution” and how they were defending it and the Capitol Hill cops were not. Again, they don’t know the Constitution at all. If you sat them down and gave them a basic test of its contents, they would all fail. In their heads it’s simply a permission slip that allows conservative white men to make all the decisions.

    • We've had at least two "stolen" presidential elections here in the United States, in 1876 and 2000. In the first Samuel Tilden won the popular vote and would have won the electoral college if several states hadn't sent in opposing returns, with the Senate deadlocking on which set to accept. In the second Al Gore won the popular vote and would have taken Florida if all the votes had been counted, thus ensuring an electoral college victory. But in the first a special committee was appointed to hand the presidency over to Rutherford Hayes, and in the second the Supreme Court halted the vote count in Florida to give the victory to George Bush, and LIFE WENT ON. Like it or not (I don't) there is a system in place, and that system gave us Hayes and Bush rather than Tilden and Gore, and if there is a problem with that the system should be fixed to prevent future "thefts" rather than trying futilely to alter history.

      If the Republicans are correct that the Constitution of the United States has been misunderstood for two hundred years, and that only the state legislature has a say in determining election rules (something the Constitution doesn't actually say however) then the solution is to make sure that future elections are held in accordance with this new interpretation, not to retroactively throw out votes cast by legitimate voters in accordance with the laws in place at the time. Not counting votes from legitimate voters is as much fraud as counting votes from illegitimate voters, and far more common.

  6. The issue is not that people are dumb or poorly educated – stupid is the default state for humans – the issue is putting these people in power over everybody else.  Until that's fixed, this country is going over the cliff.

  7. Long before all this CRT hysteria, the teaching in public schools of American history, let alone black history, was already problematic.  What was already being taught was whitewashed mythology, essentially.  A lot of the black kids of my era learned more about black history, and thus American history, outside of schools, listening to guests and authors on black radio, TV programs and other sources, which led us to books like Lerone Bennett's "Before the Mayflower" and Ivan Van Sertima's "They Came Before Columbus."  Which opened the floodgates such that by the time Alex Haley's "Roots" came to network TV, I already knew why white folk were nervous about it, because many knew it would talk about truths that have been well hidden. 

    "We" are going to have to continue the oral tradition of passing down history, to not just our own kids, but to all who will listen.  

  8. I knew a young lady who went to Catholic school in Texas. She read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in AP English.  Public school AP English teachers were not allowed to assign this book. 

  9. Well done, Ms. Maha!

    The first paragraph reminds me of the Mike Judge parody, "Idiocracy".

    Parody, ………….or prophesy?

Comments are closed.