“For the first time in American history, we’re not allowed to teach American history.”
It was the first thing in my Facebook feed when I awoke on July 5, posted by a good friend from college.
As a person who did undergraduate and graduate work in history, the sentiment carried in those few words was an anti-intellectual gut punch. But I know it’s an idea with legs – and a capacity to go viral.
On social media right now, people of conscience are deluged with opportunities to speak up or speak out.
In this frenzy, we must choose what to ignore, what ethically demands response and what can be constructively engaged.
I confess my own sharp and ready morally outraged responses may well be witty, sarcastic and outfitted with facts, but they mostly amount to catharsis for me and insult to the other.
Though I will not commit to an absolute “no rant” future, I know my rants do little to help us move past the pitched battles erupting across our society.
I believe I have an ethical responsibility to grow up past my own easy “fast balls” and toward something constructive.
We all know people, who are intelligent and decent at their core, currently swept up in these battles because they are captive to their culture, controlled by rigid religious perspectives and locked in their own lack of knowledge, exposure and experience.
We can help people find some off-ramps from the close-minded, uninformed, reactionary tribal positions many are holding onto for dear life.
To be effective, I can’t just jump into the battle that is pitched before me; for surely the forces that seek to divide actually relish that. So, I am stumbling, bumbling and faltering toward something better.
In responding to my friend, I knew it was risky, but I tried to build an “off-ramp” of sorts by backing up and talking about what history is.
The word “history” has probably never gotten the attention of the American public more than at this moment.
People generally do not see history as a rigorous academic discipline, like medicine or science. And right there, the descent into inane argument begins.
The perceived threat underlying my friend’s repost is that American history is on the chopping block. Truth is, American history is at a “building block” stage.
There is great fear, drenched in white privilege, that American history will suffer if we add additional perspectives, content, analysis and research.
The contrived horror over the “obliteration of Confederate history” is nothing but a recruitment strategy to turn white Americans into shills, fighting the ever-expanding body of knowledge we call American history.
But if we sidestep the momentary battle and aim for a logical framework for discussing history, we can compare it to other disciplines, allowing for the possibility of an “off-ramp” from the contagion of unreflective reposts.
We can step back and recognize we do not call physics the entire body of science, nor would we equate oncology with the whole of medicine.
My friend’s repost was a politicized demand for grossly incomplete history, standing in for American history as the whole. It is dangerous.
American history as taught in my generation, and even still today, is so wildly incomplete that, by the millions, Americans are walking around with advanced degrees and diplomas yet so undereducated in history they are struggling to participate and contribute in a democracy.
Too many people believe the study of history is a simple recollection of select past events and can be conveniently conflated with civic and cultural mythology.
They don’t understand that historical work – discovery, research and analysis – is an ongoing process, just like science or medicine.
And history is a professional academic discipline – with rigorous forums for debate, critique and review among experts.
In history as in science, we discover new evidence, compelling stories and new connections. This stimulates increasingly well-honed analysis.
We are still “growing” American history. Intellectual honesty says we always will be.
In science, we would consider it ignorant to teach physics only to the point of Newton and gravity and then call people scientifically educated. We wouldn’t leave out quantum physics.
We don’t exclude ongoing research in science that challenges previously held assumptions. In fact, we welcome and celebrate new discoveries.
My friend’s reposted quote carries within it a sneering, limited definition of the word “American,” raising an endless cascade of questions. Who is American? Who is not? When does “American” history begin? What does it include and exclude?
Maybe the proper adjective “American” is a term about the land mass, which then would include Native Americans.
But the more sinister sentiment underlying the quote she posted seems more like a tight, nationalistic definition that serves as a stand in for the “United States of America” exclusively.
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part two is available here.
An Alabama native and mother of three sons, Hiley has a BA in history, a Master of Divinity, and is a former Kellogg Foundation National Leadership Fellow. She lives near Birmingham, Alabama, with her husband, Todd Heifner.