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Ignorance equals repetition of failure
History may be all about perspective, but not all histories are equal
Published 8/23/2011
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Everyone knows, at least in the abstract, that history is important. The paraphrase “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it” has and never will lose its plainly correct moral lesson. In any case, educational standards for teaching history from the elementary through high school level in the United States are overall “mediocre-to-awful,” according to the prestigious Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a moderate to right-of-center think tank based out of Washington, D.C., that focuses its attention on the issue of education.

Despite the fact that some states, such as South Carolina and New York, were given letter grades of A and A-, respectively, virtually the rest of the list is full of Cs, Ds and, perhaps not so shockingly, a whole lot of Fs. I am not going to repeat the entire report. The point is that if you are not aware of the glaring problem we have of ignorance of history then you are either simply not paying much attention or suffering from that ignorance yourself. And those are not mutually exclusive. Although I cannot prove it, I suspect part of the problem is that a person needs to know history in order to grasp its significance, and as always, better education is the way out.

In a related strain highly relevant to this, there is an enormous amount of propaganda that gets in the way of spreading a balanced version of history. By now all the shenanigans surrounding the Texas State Board of Education ought to be widely known. If you are not familiar with it, in short, a group of decidedly conservative members of the board managed to push through a new history curriculum that presents a more “conservative” history, particularly regarding the history of the United States itself. One illuminating example is the issue of the Christian faith of the founding fathers, which is a contentious subject among academic historians. Our Christian heritage is to be emphasized whereas the more secular of the founding fathers, Jefferson primarily, are to be brushed aside and given what amounts to merely an honorary mention with very little content. Incidentally, the report I mentioned stated Texas has “a rigidly thematic and theory-based social studies structure with a politicized distortion of history.” In retrospect, we should not kid ourselves about the fact that any kind of history is a version of history, which is to say it is impossible to include everything known about a time period or geographical location; therefore, some facts have to be left out, requiring value judgments. In the end, however, I think it is fair to say, as any sane person would admit, that some histories are indeed “better” than others.

Let us be clear that when I use the word propaganda as I did above, I mean disinformation, the deliberate manipulation and/or fabrication of information for a particular goal, probably a political one. Misinformation is more difficult to attack since it is the unintentional propagation of “bad” information, or in this case “bad history.” I do not see how it could really be manipulative or malevolent because it is done out of ignorance. One could have the best of intentions but nevertheless hold some idea or “fact” to heart that appears wildly off-center from some other perspective. But, misinformation can be just as tough to cure, especially when those who hold various beliefs, whatever they may specifically be, are emotionally invested in them, causing those people to do anything to validate those dear notions. Personally, I would submit that those individuals are very close to becoming propagandists themselves as they have shown a commitment to information or ideas only insofar as those ideas serve a purpose of some sort, not basing their commitment on a common sense notion of truth-value.

Good formal education is necessary but not sufficient to making the majority of people historically aware and articulate. It takes discourse with those whom we disagree with. It would be arrogant to assume “I am right, you are wrong.” I am consciously thinking of individuals like myself who on some level fancy themselves as being fairly knowledgeable with regards to history. It would be better for us and everyone else to have the humility to say that we can all learn something from one another despite the fact that some of us could learn a great deal more relative to others. We risk too much by arguing angrily with our fellow citizens. Treating someone with contempt due to a perception of a lack of historical brilliance or in any subject for that matter on their part is a lazy, self-serving tactic. We risk alienating and embittering all persons involved. By calmly and sympathetically evaluating each other’s opinions and addressing the informational as well as emotional problems that lead us to believe certain things, we are more likely to find common ground and with a little luck, the problems we face, even from ideologues such as those in Texas, may dissolve after time.

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