Monday, September 8, 2014

In Which Historians Accuse Each Other of Bias

Stanley Kurtz put a post up at the Corner complaining that the new AP history exam will "effectively force American high schools to teach U.S. history from a leftist perspective." Which may or may not be true, although he presents an interesting argument that it is. But he offers the following as his notion of a less politicized approach:
America is freer and more democratic than any other nation, and for that reason, a model, vindicator, and at times the chief defender of ordered liberty and self-government in the world.

Here is a good example of the real debates about history that get mashed up in this sort of ideological struggle:
Offering an alternative, transnational history designed to combat American “unilateralism,” Bender says that Columbus and his successors didn’t discover America so much as they discovered “the ocean world,” a new global community united by the oceans. The oceans, in turn, made possible the slave trade and the birth of modern capitalism, which improved the lives of European, but brought exploitation and tragic injustice to the rest of the world. Bender concludes that early American history is only partially about “utopian dreams of opportunity or escape”. The beginnings of the American story, says Bender, are also deeply rooted in the birth of capitalism, and the “capture, constraint, and exploitation” this implies.

In other words, Bender wants early American history to be less about the Pilgrims, Plymouth Colony, and John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” speech, and more about the role of the plantation economy and the slave trade in the rise of an intrinsically exploitative international capitalism.
To which I can only say, well, that's true. One might argue that "exploitative international capitalism" is a loaded phrase, but I am not sure on what basis anyone could deny that this account is substantially correct. Yes, lots of non-Europeans also benefited from global trade, from spice growers in Sri Lanka to African slave catchers -- but plenty of others were ruthlessly exploited. The establishment of Britain's colonies in America was not very much about the Pilgrims or Plymouth and had a lot to do with world trade and plantations worked by African slaves. The employment of African slaves in the Americas did make Europe richer. It was its mastery of global trade, much more than anything to do with the innate character of Europeans, that made Europe the center of the world in the 18th and 19th centuries.

But that is certainly not the whole story. Thousands of Europeans did come to the New World seeking freedom. Massachusetts was not the whole story of America but it was part of it. America's revolutionary proclamation of freedom  did resonate with many people around the world, for example Haitian slaves. The question one faces in designing a high school history textbook is what to include and what to leave out. I think the huge expansion of world trade, leading eventually to global capitalism, is important; I think the enslavement of millions of Africans is important; I think the plantation culture of the American South is important, including its connection to world trade. (Plantations pretty much by definition raised crops for export, and planters were big supporters of free trade.)

Some critics of American history as it is taught by liberal academics just hate to dwell on anything bad because it makes them feel criticized. Others want history taught in a way that more firmly unites the nation behind a shared vision; as Kurtz put it, "the old U.S. history forged a shared national identity by emphasizing America’s distinctiveness." As a political goal that may or may not be worthy, but as history it is crap. America has been badly disunited since its founding -- as the Indian Wars show, as the Civil War shows, as the battles over labor rights and equality for blacks show, as the battles over women's rights show, and as this argument over American history shows. America is unique only the sense that every nation is unique, and its history is neither uniquely good, nor uniquely bad, nor particularly unified. If you want to distort that history for political ends, ok, but at least be honest about what you are doing.


Unknown said...

I would agree with you, especially insofar as it seems to me the rhetoric of both sides seems hopelessly self-indulgent, moralistic, and overblown. That said, surely it's pretty silly to say that the English-speaking settlement was "not much" about the Pilgrims. Granted, Plymouth itself is often over-emphasized. But the Puritans as a whole were certainly as striking a part of English society at the time as the proto-capitalists, more numerous in the colonies than the slavers for the first two centuries or so, and just as important to the building of American culture, values, etc. The interesting thing is that the same society could produce _both_ Massachusetts and Carolina.

John said...

There was a recent NY Times Op Ed by one of the authors of this framework that I wasn't able to find to link to. He was saying explicitly that Americans don't understand events in the Middle East because 1) they don't understand how the US fits into the world, and 2) they don't understand why people around the world hate us. So he was arguing that Americans need a more international and more negative portrayal of our history. To which the conservative response would be, no, Americans don't need to understand the Middle East, they need to believe in themselves and their nation.

Unknown said...

I didn't see the Op Ed, but I gather that the designers of the framework are little interested in the question, "why do many Muslims hate us?" and more interested in the question "Why should we hate ourselves?" I doubt many in the Middle East give a damn about American slavery, or about McCarthyism, or about the Trail of Tears. If they talk about things like that at all, I suggest this is because they know these are sticks they can use to beat the US with, but they hate the US for deeper reasons that are internal to their cultures and have little to do with the obsessions of American leftists orrightists. I doubt Khalid Sheikh Muhammad woke up one day and said to himself, "Damn, America was founded as part of the plantation slavery complex! I hate them!"

Obviously I don't side with the right-wing hacks who want to teach American exceptionalism. To me, both sides represent bad teaching.

pootrsox said...

Here is the op-ed.

It makes excellent sense to me.

And if you go to the actual guidelines, you'll see that they really do not do all those awful negative things that the critics are saying.