Tuesday, March 23, 2010

So, history can be "managed," can't it?

Last week the Texas State Board of Education adopted a textbook content plan for all social studies students in the state of Texas.  You can read the report on the Board's action published in  The Dallas Morning News here.

The article and, even more, the actions of the board drive home a point about the writing of history that seems to escape many of us. 

History is always interpretation. 

The notion of historical fact remains largely mythological by definition.  At best, history is the craft of cobbling together various sources into a story that then can expect to be challenged by other historians with additional sources and new interpretations.  This process of give and take, peer review and intellectual refinement and debate is the stuff of the profession.  It provides cause for conventions and symposiums and professional meetings.  It provides content for various historical journals.  In the battle we discover the professional concerns of serious historians.  Of course, non-historians can enter the fray as well, as evidenced by the action of the Board of Education whose actions were admittedly more political than historic in any sense. 

Still, there is no such thing as an objective historical narrative  or the definitive version of any historical event, period or epoch that we can rely on without healthy skepticism or continuing challenge. 

Further, the historian's own social context, her own life history, his educational experiences and her personal values all will enter the process of "doing history."  Great historians labor to overcome the adverse affects of outside influences, but pure interpretative analysis just doesn't happen.  Sources must be chosen, evaluated, reject or included.  The result:  the latest historical interpretation to be read, appreciated and critiqued for the good of an on-going quest for better, more complete understandings. 

Historians like John B. Boles, Howard Zinn and David McCullough, to name only three, know (in Zinn's case, sadly, "knew") this reality.  Historians spend their lives working their sources to discover and craft a story that we can dig into, gain insight from and use in the living of our own lives. 

While the recent actions of our State Board of Education leave an awful lot to be desired when it comes to the source choices they made, it should not surprise us that they chose.  That's just want historians do.  Even non-historians, like our state Board of Education, make such choices, in this most recent case with a political and value agenda to promote. 

Speaking of choices and sources, be sure and read what my partner Rev. Gerald Britt wrote about the Texas textbook plan.  I think you'll appreciate the choices he makes and the story he tells.  To read what he has to say click here.


Anonymous said...

I just read Gerald Britt's blog. I think both yours and his were outstanding. I have seen this skewing of history taking place on both sides. I cannot believe that Britt was sent to the principal's office because of what he wrote about Lincoln. In my opinion, Lincoln was above all else an astute politician who made most of his decision out of political necessity and not out of deeply felt convictions. We don't seem to tell both sides very well when we teach history. I think this reality is often seen even in the presentation of the life of Dr. King. I believe his work had an immensely positive impact on American life, but there are some grossly negative aspects of his life which are rarely if ever mentioned. I bring this up not to advocate trying to dismantle the legacy of Dr. King, but to offer another example that the accurate presentation of history is at best a difficult task for both sides. I live in Tennessee and am not really up on Texas politics so I am sure that my comments would make more sense if I did. I hope that I am not the only person who posts on this subject. This is a serious issue and deserves serious discussion.

R. Corum

Jerry said...

Larry, a well written and highly thoughtful article. I may only add one thing--that is, history is typically written by the "victors," whether that be in war or in policy. Your thoughts?

Larry James said...

Jerry, you are correct: history is usually written by the victors. This is why Howard Zinn is so important. He wrote from the perspective of the so-called losers.

Gerald Britt said...

Thanks for referring to my post Larry.

One of the things I didn't get an opportunity to say about the incident in school (in an effort to stay on subject), was that the teacher and I did reconnect when I was an adult. She was a volunteer at the hospital I worked for. I never mentioned the incident and she probably didn't remember it.
I think its safe to say we became friends. I came to know her as a kind, compassionate woman who was simply product of her times.

That by no means excuses what the SBOE is doing, which is based on a political agenda. It is difficult, if almost impossible, to tell all sides of a historical event. But it is possible to give differing perspectives to teach that in a pluralistic society we can look at incidents differently and they add both to the rich fabric of our country and contribute to our understanding of who we are in this country.

I do want to say to R. Corum, that this rarely has anything to do with an historic individual's personal life. Only in as much as it contributes to the motivations or limits the capacity of an individual's historic contribution.

That being said, the things to which to which you bear reference about King's personal life, are well documented and have been known for years. The efforts to sanitize his image and make him a 'safe' figure (vs. some more polarizing figures, such as Stokely Carmichael or Malcolm X) are not his fault, but that of friends who tried to protect his image and others who wanted to promote his 'safe' image as a civil rights leader. But his personal failings do not make him tragic or weak in the context of history or his even his contemporaries.

What it does show, as do the failings of Lincoln, Washington, Kennedy, Jefferson or Franklin, is that ordinary men can do extraordinary things if the recognize the times in which they live and the opportunities they have.

Chad said...

Larry, great stuff. Can't believe - well, yeah, probably can! - that bit about the BoE in Texas. I remember my Jesuit prof's lesson very vividly: history, fundamentally, is storytelling. And a story is always told from a point of view.

Frank Bellizzi said...


As you're pointing out, a minute's reflection tells us that history is socially and, as in the case you're pointing to, politically constructed. But we don't often get to see this happening so clearly as it does the story about the Texas State Board of Education.

A novice historian, I've been impressed by any number of point-counterpoint type textbooks that have been published of late. Regarding public policy, social questions, etc. experts on both sides are allowed to give it their best shot within a limited word range so that students can get a handle on various questions and hear from opposing viewpoints. Of course, even books like that are framed. But the larger point is that, if teachers like me don't realize it, our students certainly do: we're living in a post-modern world where people are perfectly able to understand individuals and societies, for example, as both victims and perpetrators, as both seeing and blind. When lecturing, I always notice smiles and nods when I hold up opposing views of the same thing. My students intuitively know that there are at least two sides to every story or, in my case, a religious text. They really appreciate getting to hear the array of theories and possibilities. Trusting them with that makes them feel respected. And it encourages them to dig deeper on their own.

Anonymous said...


A great example of how historians "create" history is presented in the book "Inventing the Middle Ages," by Norman Cantor. It is about how the great medieval historians of the 20th Century (including C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien) had to "create" the Middle Ages because almost everything that we thought we knew about this time prior to about 1900was simply myth and prejudice.