History’s Mysteries: Who’s Teaching This?

As a cultural battleground, the teaching of history never excited the, er, passions associated with controversial movie-making or prime-time exhibitionism.

Nevertheless, there was a time not so long ago when everybody including the future Vice President’s wife, Lynne Cheney, had an opinion about the nation’s history curriculum. Conservatives argued that fuzzy social studies had turned history into just another exercise in group grievance and slighted the accomplishments of some of the nation’s founders. Liberals argued that U.S. history ought to be something more than merely memorizing the deeds of dead white men. When some curricula seemed to sacrifice Great White Men on the altar of political correctness, holy hell followed.

While I’m not an academic, I occasionally play one on TV. Being true to the spirit of this avocation, I felt strongly both ways about the curriculum wars. History is not, as Richard Nixon and others contended, merely biography. Ordinary people, whose biographies will never be written, changed the course of history just as surely as any Great White Man when they marched for civil rights, for women’s suffrage, for the right to join unions. Then again, there are some biographies every school kid ought to know, even if they seem skewed toward dead white men.

Years after the professors duked it out in the pages of the mainstream press, there is some evidence to suggest that we are, in fact, educating a generation of students to feel proud to be a part of their racial/ethnic/religious group, while teaching them next to nothing about history. Indeed, judging by the information and oh-so-cautious language in my kid’s fourth-grade history textbook ( Exploring Our Land, published by Houghton Mifflin), I fear for the future.

Imagine, for example, explaining the Berlin Wall to a bunch of 10-year-olds without mentioning the Soviet Union, the United States or the word “oppression.” Well, the non-judgmental authors of Exploring Our Land have managed that trick. They write that in 1945, “a group of countries” divided up Germany. “However, people kept trying to leave East Berlin.” Why? The book doesn’t say. Besides, people move around all the time-what’s the big deal anyway? But 28 years later, the book informs young minds, “the people of East Germany changed their government … they decided to remove the boundary between East and West Berlin.”

Freedom, oppression-whatever! It is curious that the authors would choose not to mention the depredations visited upon East Berlin-thus causing the pre-Wall flight-for they certainly pull no punches in describing the evils of slavery in America and of white resistance to the civil-rights movement. This is how it should be-which makes the bland, who-are-we-to-judge passage about the Berlin Wall all the more curious.

The book, incidentally, bears the imprimatur of a host of scholars associated with several religious and ethnic organizations, including the Council on Islamic Education, the periodical Hinduism Today, the Institute of Buddhist Studies and the East Asian Institute. This is very worthy indeed, but represents a certain kind of inclusion that most people would recognize as intellectually dishonest.

Given the nation’s traditional heritage and even its current demographics, you might expect the vetters to include a distinguished professor for Judeo-Christian studies, or a renowned expert in European-American or African-American history. Yes, it’s wonderful that the text passed muster with the Council on Islamic Education. But why not the Anti-Defamation League, too?

Then again, what can one expect from a text which defines a republic as a nation in which “people can vote for new representatives”? This shocking bit of ignorance no doubt would sadden the Founders. Republic, constitutional monarchy, commonwealth-whatever!

An ongoing radio campaign for the Bank of New York also seems to be evidence of historical illiteracy, as it features an actor playing Alexander Hamilton urging Thomas Jefferson to include the right to free checking as the 11th Amendment. “But I thought we agreed that 10 was a nice round number,” the voice of Jefferson replies. Gotcha, you say: Thomas Jefferson didn’t write the Bill of Rights. He wrote that other thing-you know, the Declaration of Independence thing. In high dudgeon, I confronted the bank’s spokesman, Kevin Heine, with this appalling example of the end of the world as we know it. “Don’t you know that James Madison wrote the Bill of Rights, not Thomas Jefferson?” I said, imagining myself as an earnest adviser to a children’s social-studies textbook.

He laughed. “We’re well aware of the historical inaccuracy regarding Jefferson,” he said. Ah, so this was a willful display of ignorance!

Well, maybe not.

“We also are aware that the right to free checking was never considered as the 11th Amendment,” Mr. Heine said. “We were just having a little fun.”

A little fun? Right-that’s another thing missing from the social-studies curriculum.