A friend’s Facebook post lamenting we no longer teach “American history” grabbed my attention.
It was July 5 and it served as an anti-intellectual gut punch. I’ve done too much study in history and too much work on social change in the South to miss that the underlying purpose of her post was to lament the removal of Confederate monuments and resist a more inclusive view of American history.
As I discussed previously, her post was a dangerous, politicized demand for grossly incomplete history, standing in for American history as the whole.
By the term “American,” some people are asserting a political measure of legitimacy they believe they can either grant or withhold.
Each nuance brings on more questions. Do we believe Native Americans are really “American?” Are they Americans today or did they “become American” at some point along the way?
Should their history fall under a broader heading of American history? Or is that somehow different, “non-American” history?
Do we include colonial history if “American” really just means “U.S.A.?” In that case, does “American history” begin in 1776?
When does the history of African Americans come into the picture? Is their story an “American” story? Does that begin with Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation or when they arrived here?
And what of Irish immigrants because they were not considered “white” by most Americans when they came in large numbers? When were their stories granted admission into “American history” on these terms?
The vague notion of what history is and the conflagration of all the politicized meanings hidden within that little Facebook quote are quickly unfurled if we just begin to ask questions.
This pithy quote’s notion of “American history” is so easily muddled and muzzled it could be used to rewrite and exclude far more Confederate history than anyone has suggested to date.
It could consign us to sit behind an opaque glass and not be able to “see inside” the Confederacy, effectively blocking us from further knowledge at the Mason Dixon Line.
If American history continually expands to include more knowledge, more ideas, more history of the people who came before and who now share this nation with us, how can it become less valuable?
The greatest way to belittle American history, actually, is to stop doing it.
We would never argue that medicine or science be taught in slivers and incomplete pieces, frozen in time, allowing for no new scholarship, information or research.
We would never want biology alone, frozen in time, to stand in for the totality of “science.” Neither would we want neurology alone, say from 1982, to substitute for the whole of medicine today.
My friend and I are two white, privileged, college-educated American women just past the half-century mark.
Without supplementation beyond our high school and college educations, we would not know of Alice Paul, the suffragette, so hell-bent on our right to vote she was repeatedly arrested and thrown into insane asylums and force-fed during hunger strikes.
Neither would we know those very inhumane asylums, built on stigma and superstition, were greatly reformed by two women named Nellie Bly and Dorothea Dix.
Until I asked her the other day, I doubt whether my college-educated friend (and nurse) knew that birth control was illegal throughout the U.S. until after we were born. Does it matter if we know that or wonder why? I asked.
I asked her if we would have been harmed – or rendered less American – if we learned NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson was just as crucial to U.S. space exploration as Werner von Braun and John Glenn.
How do we love America more by wanting half-educated citizens? Why this frightened demand that scholarship in history be so limited and our entire education system so stunted?
If the truncated history some insist should stand in for the whole of history is so strong, evident and true, why such fear “their history” will crumble if additional information and scholarship comes into view?
A democracy cannot be sustained with undereducated citizens sorely lacking in historical knowledge, any more than science can advance with no laboratories.
As a person with degrees in history and theology, I am not about to create or share a Facebook post pushing an alternative approach to CPR different from what medical professionals teach, nor a pithy proposal of a new theory of electrons.
I do want citizens engaged in discussions about history, but not without some recognition history is an academic discipline with an enormous content base and serious professionals who do ongoing work.
History feels frightening right now to many people, particularly white people. That fear is so easily exploited by forces that desire division, from both within and without.
White people aren’t scared of what they know. They are scared of what they are just beginning to know. Most of them have just now seen over the edge, realizing how very much they do not know at all.
The best work I can do as a human being who wants to see this country move forward is to help them right on over the edge.
My job is to take some risks myself, redirect some of my own instant ranting and try to build some “offs-ramps” for the people who are willing to take them.
Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series. Part one 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.