History has changed a lot in the last few years, and I don’t mean because of 9/11. No, it’s changed because textbook companies are trying to make history politically correct. In the process, many historical events are glossed over and others are ignored entirely.
Guidelines in California, for instance, now state that American Indians are not to be depicted wearing long braids, in rural settings or on reservations. The problem is many natives did wear their hair in long braids, they did live in rural settings, and they did eventually move to reservations. In England, Vikings were once depicted as fierce raiders. But not anymore. Since 1994, England’s textbooks have depicted them as farmers who settled in Scandinavia and “expanded” from there (no word about how that expansion was carried out). That’s too bad, because the Vikings are great fun to study! There’s blood, gore, pillaging, backstabbing, and all kinds of hair-raising tales. Yet kids will now be forced to learn about how the Vikings wanted to settle in France because of the longer growing season. It’s history without all those nasty bits, which, not uncoincidentally, is history without all the action. No wonder boys are tuning out.
But it’s also history without any context. Although almost all students will hear about America’s history with slavery, fewer will learn that it was other Africans who sold the slaves to Europeans and Americans in the first place. They also probably won’t hear that slavery was practised at all times and by almost all cultures until relatively recently. Nor will they hear that slavery is still practised in Africa, 200 years after it was abolished in England by the crusade of a white man, and 140 years after it was abolished in the United States by the blood of both black and white. Yet don’t these facts matter if we’re going to try to understand slavery’s causes and its legacy?
As a homeschooler, I’m not that familiar with many Canadian textbooks, though I had a peek with some geography resources we purchased at a library sale. In 1998, a multiculturalism institute at the University of Toronto published a series of pamphlets describing all the countries in the world. We bought about 80 of them, and when I looked through them afterwards I came across several interesting “facts”. Did you know that Cuba has complete freedom of religion? It’s too bad those priests and pastors in Castro’s jails haven’t been informed of that. And that after Israel declared independence in May 1948 a civil war broke out? I thought it generally was not called a civil war when five foreign powers invade you (in this case, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq). That’s like calling World War II the French Civil War.
It’s almost as if the goal is not to teach facts, but to make sure kids have the right opinions. Yet how can kids—or anyone for that matter—form a coherent opinion without the facts? And if scores on history tests can be believed, factual knowledge is in awfully short supply.
I am reminded of a story a professor at NYU once told. On the first day of classes every year, he asks the students, “Who said, ‘religion is the opiate of the masses’?” Usually no one hazards a guess. So one year he gave a hint. “He was German.” An African-American girl spoke up and said, “Martin Luther?”, at which point all the kids started to snicker. The professor couldn’t figure out why. Martin Luther was a German, and he did write about religion, so it was actually a good guess. Then one boy elbowed her and said, “Don’t you know he was a brother?”. The professor was astonished. The students assumed she meant Martin Luther King, Jr. What saddened him was not that they didn’t know the answer; it was that they thought they knew something they actually had no clue about. They didn’t even understand their own ignorance. I hope we in Canada put a stop to this historical revisionism, before ignorance is all we have left, too.