IS HISTORY MORE THAN JUST A MYTH AGREED UPON?
Recent political chingazos about the teaching of history in our public schools got me to recalling a crazy comment a woman in Texas made a few years ago. She may have been a wacko church lady or some member of a city council. Anyway, there was a battle brewing in a Texas town about the concept of bilingual education. She squawked, “Look if English was good enough for Jesus and the Bible, then English is good enough for me.”
(Aramaic lessons, anyone?)
Sure, it’s easy to dismiss those pendejada remarks as the ravings of a loon. But hold on. Those sentiments are scarily representative of a lot of folks. That has been made clear in recent skirmishes over the teaching of history in our public schools. These battles are being fought in lots of places, but particularly in Arizona, Texas and now Colorado. And it’s not just a matter of chingazos about protecting ethnic studies or jettisoning Chicano Studies or African American Studies. The issue is more comprehensive than that. It’s a debate about what, exactly, is history. Long ago someone wrote that history is a myth agreed upon. That may be true, to a degree, but genuine history should be based on documented reality and on a willingness to seek the truth and face the facts. Fundamentally, the current dustup (and it is a serious matter) involves right-wing politicians who are determined to enforce what kind of “history” is taught and what books are used to teach it. As they see it, let’s not mention such unpleasant realities as slavery, or genocide against indigenous groups, or Jim Crow apartheid or lynchings (blacks in the South and Mexicans in Texas) or – on a more contemporary plane – mass movements for civil rights, opposition to war and justice for workers.
The most recent fire in this effort is smoldering in Jefferson County, Colorado. (It’s a coincidence, of course, but that’s the county where the infamous Columbine High School massacre occurred.) A new majority has taken over the local school board and they got right to work trying to impose their brand of “history” in the curriculum. Put simply: Only George Washington chopping down cherry trees and Betsy Ross stitching together Old Glory. No Cesar Chavez or Martin Luther King, Jr. These new school board members have found new allies such as Dustin Zvonek, the Colorado state director of the Neanderthal-like group Americans for Prosperity, which is a rightwing group affiliated with the infamously avaricious Koch brothers. Koch money helped elect the school board members who champion what can generously be called revisionist history teaching.
These folks in Colorado want high schools to impart lessons to promote “more positive aspects” about the country and less discussion about “civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.” They also trumpet this line: “Materials should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-enterprise system, respect for authority and materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.” That’s in a “report” prepared by the new conservative school board majority. I’m not making this stuff up.
How inconvenient it would be to mention that slavery, legal segregation and discrimination are a part of the history of this country. As well as mass movements by ethnic minorities, labor activists and advocates for women to struggle for human and civil rights. No, these people don’t want students to learn about such “unpleasant” aspects of our collective history. They want students to be exposed to only “the good things” about this country.
However, to their credit many of the high school students in Jefferson County are standing up for reason. And, interestingly enough, these are mostly white students. (Reminds me of the Chicano high school students who staged the walkouts in East Los Angeles 46 years ago.) A high school in student in Jefferson County recently told a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, “I want to someday teach history (and) I believe students need to learn the facts – all of them.” Good for her. She and many other students have actually staged walk-outs and demonstrations protesting the changes being pushed by the archconservative school board majority. The students are in for a tough fight. But, at least there’s some hope in all of this.
Several months ago there was another, albeit small and symbolic development that stirs some hope. It happened in Texas, that bastion of progressive policies that gave us George W. Bush and Rick Perry. Conservative state senator Dan Patrick (who by the way, is now running for the office of lieutenant governor) proposed a law that would prevent college classes in Texas from being counted toward a student’s graduation. Unbelievable. He was making some progress in getting his draconian measure passed in the legislature. Then, Latino activists mounted a vigorous campaign against the foolish measure. They shone a very public light on the bill and were successful in preventing the bill from passing in the initial house of the legislature.
It was a victory for the Librotraficante campaign. The campaign began in Texas but was started to support ethnic studies programs in Arizona. The Librotraficante, movement began as a protest against the insane actions of rightwing officials in Arizona – and specifically in Tucson – to eliminate Mexican American studies programs and ban certain books, many of them by Latino writers, from classroom use. Activist Tony Diaz was among the early organizers of the Librotraficante movement. Among other things, it collected and distributed “banned books” including the celebrated Chicano coming-of-age novel “Bless Me, Ultima” by Rudolfo Anaya.
Diaz celebrated the throttling of the measure to discredit the value of ethnic studies in the Texas legislature. He told a San Antonio newspaper: “This is a warning to all far right legislators in any State of the Union, if you attack our History, our Culture, or our books, we will defy you, and we will win.” Clearly it was a victory (admittedly a small one), but victories are not the story in Arizona where reasonable approaches to teaching history have been under strident attack by politicians and policymakers.
Lawsuits and political actions are at work trying to overturn those shortsighted efforts in Arizona, but conclusive results are still far off on the horizon.
This entire issue brings into focus the general question of “What are we taught in school and why.” The teaching of history—and how it’s taught—is central to this, but it goes beyond history. And it begins very early in the school indoctrination process. Public schools want to have students become “good citizens” who readily absorb the ethos of this country (myths and all) in order for us to all have a positive picture of the land we live in. Nothing inherently wrong with that. Every society does it. But there is a big qualifier. The truth shouldn’t be sacrificed for cohesion.
I grew up on Los Angeles’ east side and attended public schools there. I came of age as a college student during the turbulent time of the explosion of the Chicano Movement. My experiences, I suspect, are similar to those of many of my generation.
The United States has a diverse, dynamic and complex history. Shouldn’t we all have the right to know that history in all its complexity? As part of the effort to dig into this, I actually got a hold of history books that I used in classrooms when I was a mocoso – in junior high school and high school. (This was in the Pleistocene, better known as the 1960s). Not a mention of the genocide against indigenous people, not even in sugar coated terms. No mention of the diseases that wiped out entire Indian nations on the east coast, the annihilation of the plains Indians by the U.S. Army or the slavery imposed on California native communities by the Junipero Serras of the Spanish Catholic occupation. Ni palabra.
And, as it happens, I recently ran into some classroom “readers” at a flea market, and I bought them right away. They were some of the books that I read in elementary school. I tell you it was quite an experience reading them again, these many, many years later. One book was “Believe and Make-Believe” and another was “Down Our Way.” Fascinating to read again. Fundamentally, the books were intended to do two things way back then. First, to teach you how to read and to progressively reinforce your reading abilities. And secondly, the subtle and nuanced intent of the books was to have you buy into the notion that this is a wholesome, comforting and benevolent society. We’re all in it together as “Americans”!
Yet, if you were Mexican or black or Native or Asian, you certainly weren’t in that universe. It starts with Dick and Jane and progresses to slightly more sophisticated stories, but the tone and context are still the same. The characters are lily white and so are their concerns. It’s like “Leave it to Beaver” and “Ozzie and Harriet” in books. Growing up, you just read the stories and move on, but there’s this nagging feeling that somehow we’re excluded from the world. We don’t see ourselves in those books. Minor stuff? Perhaps. But it becomes more calculated and more pernicious as we move into high school and even college.
History books are still filled with the tale of the white man’s conquest of nature and his conquest of those groups of people (such as blacks and Indians and Mexicans) who are mere unpleasant obstacles in the way of some ultimate gringo Manifest Destiny. So, history is a key to understanding and to seeking truth.
I remember being a teenager and reading Carey McWilliams’ “North From Mexico” for the first time. What a satisfying revelation! Here was a book about the collision between gringos and Mexicans in the American Southwest told with a sympathetic and empathetic focus on the Mexican’s frame of reference. And that followed with the discovery of books such as Dee Brown’s masterful “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” and Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” which reveals history from the point of view of the downtrodden, rather than from the point of view of the general or the president. I was also deeply affected by the intellectual integrity and revealing research I discovered in historian Patricia Limerick’s “The Legacy of Conquest.” It’s a book I frequently give as a gift.
As was the case for many people, these books and alternative perspectives helped form my own consciousness about just what is history and what sources do we seek for the teaching of history. The quick answer to that last issue is, we look at everything. And we should invite alternative views. We can’t just rely on the Frederick Jackson Turner view of United States history. And we certainly can’t ban ethnic studies or the books by minority writers with a nonconventional point of view, just because it’s a politically convenient thing to do. That’s just one step closer to a Nazi-like wholesale burning of books. That is not something that a democratic republic is supposed to be about.
We have to let our voices be heard by the politicians and policymakers. Otherwise, while we’re not looking the rules will be made by people such as that crazy lady in Texas who said, “If English was good enough for Jesus and the Bible, English is good enough for me.”
Luís Torres is the author of “Doña Julia’s Children” and is researching a book on the former students of East Los Angeles calculus teacher Jaime Escalante.