Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Warts of American History

American history has its fair share of warts. It is no secret that there are certain unpleasant events in our past that make our history not so pretty. Slavery was a wart, Reconstruction was a wart, Indian removal was a wart, Japanese internment was a wart, and more recently...Abu Ghraib was a wart. Should these warts be overlooked or covered up just because they are not especially pleasing to think about? I don't think so. I think the warts of history make its story that much more interesting and real. Not repeating mistakes of the past is one primary reasons we study history isn't it?

Folklore has attempted to cover up many warts of history. Think of the story of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree. He could not tell a lie. Sure, there is a good moral to this tale, but did this really happen? Aren't there examples of people from American history who actually did something honestly, and where we don't have to make up a falsehood? Sure there are. What about the supposed first Thanksgiving? Again, there is a good lesson to learn in cooperating with one's neighbors, but the way it is usually portrayed is not the way it actually happened.

Hollywood has put its fair share of makeup on history as well. Artistic and director license has changed the way we view American history. Reconstruction is a good example. Think of how Reconstruction was portrayed in movies of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Gone With The Wind for instance. Personally, I like the film, but I have studied enough to see the inaccuracies; whereas some people who view the film take it as actual history.

Much of this boils down to memory. We want to have pleasant memories of the past, but at what expense? Not learning the truth of what happened in events shortchanges our educational experience. Some historic sites that 150 years ago involved the institution of slavery simply do not touch upon it in their tours or materials for no other reason than that it is not pleasant to talk about. There are ways to cover these touchy topics diplomatically, and still learn what actually happened.

School children need to know America's past, warts and all. They might actually be more interested in history if there was more intrigue or controversy presented. They might exercise their critical thinking skills when challenged with difficult and unfamiliar but true narratives. What is the old line, "truth is stranger than fiction?" Well, in history that is often the case.

Now, there are plenty of feel-good stories in history as well, and they should of course be told too. For example, the massive cooperative efforts between blacks and whites in the Civil Rights Movement is too often ignored or downplayed. There are numerous examples of how individual hard work, sacrifice, and determination achieved just and honest rewards. There are true stories of extreme acts of heroism by our armed men and women that need to be told. These are important too.

When you see warts in history pop up, don't just remove them or try to cover them up...examine them for what you can learn from them.

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