The American Story
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There is no single story of American history, there is no timeline with its own entirety that can be taught. Yet, that’s how history is taught in school: as a single timeline of events all leading up to what the student is left to suppose is the same thing: America, yet each year the journey of how it becomes varies slightly and ends different than it did even the year before, yet each claiming to be the correct history of the same America. This ought not to be: history is indeed ‘slippery’, but there ought not to be a different America, maybe even several different Americas known to each generation of children. Surely there’s a remedy to the different jumbles of facts of famous persons and dates in the past. Maybe history isn’t so much the names and dates and places, but more the stories, the spirit of what is to be learned and understanding who we are.
“All of us children of the twentieth century know, or should know, that there are no absolutes in human affairs, and thus there can be no such thing as perfect objectivity.” (pg. 782) America has always been called a melting pot, a large amalgamation of varied cultures, religions, ideologies, ethnicities and practices, so to believe that there is any one story – or any one way to recount American history is ridiculous. How, with so many voices, so many different experiences and perspectives can we expect for there to be only one voice? How can the history books constantly be updated to tell the “real” American story, when just a few years prior there was a new book that had it? (pg. 782). If one book does have the complete history of America, how can it be justified when a few years later another book differing enough in content and style to change the spirit and understanding of the facts yet be claiming the same thing as the first? If there is one right timeline, then the timeline should be taught and not tampered with over and over as it has been and observed; and seeing as how the timeline has been tampered with, it leaves only one solution. There is no one, true, correct way to teach history, and there is no single history that should be taught in American history, because America is a melting pot, a melting pot of cultures and ideas and events, trials, sacrifices and victories and everyone has been affected by history differently: different races and various times had different experiences and different trials to overcome. There is no single story. There is no book that could cover it all. The method used now is of no use: as everyone tries to keep up with everyone else, the same facts are repeated differently and leaves the readers in utter confusion with several versions of the same picture, or a picture that is incomplete. Indeed, there is no way to cover in a book the many threads in the story of the past and beginning of America.
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What’s to be done then? If there’s no book that can cover it all, what of history in schools? What of Christopher Columbus and John Smith and George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, now “walk-on characters” (pg. 777)? They are not history. History is not people and places and dates. History is us, our legacy, the legacy of our people and nation. It’s the spirit of our stories, and what’s happened to us to lead us to where we are today – the “great unfinished symphony” (“The World was Wide Enough” Hamilton) of what we’ve done and are doing! History wasn’t written by people, it never was about Washington or Jefferson or Columbus, they didn’t write it. It was written by what they did, what happened, what they dreamed of and fought for and believed in and what came to pass. Never mind that they’re being replaced with Chief Crazy Horse and Jacob Riis (pg. 777), never mind Chief Crazy Horse and Jacob Riis, history is not about them. History is about us, it’s about us as a people, and our stories. It’s about identity: American identity. Identity cannot be taught in a textbook about Daniel Boone or Thaddeus Stevens or riots in the streets and wars for freedom. It isn’t taught through people or pictures or even words: it’s taught through experiences, understanding the experiences and the events of what led up to now. What has led up to the American identity as of now and everything that contributed to it before to make a “Now”.
There is nothing wrong with learning from history books, there is nothing wrong with learning to think like a historian, there is nothing wrong with learning about the pilgrims and the Native Americans and the immigrants of the 1800s or the space age: there is nothing wrong with learning about all of it, but there is something wrong with learning none of it. “–they not only bring history up to date but make changes – often substantial changes – in the body of the work.” (pg. 782) In “–the histories of the fifties…America was perfect…. But now the texts have changed,” “The history texts now hint at a certain level of unpleasantness in American history.” (pg. 778) I was in 10th or 11th grade before I’d even heard of the Salem Witch trials, I never heard of POW camps and how brutal they were until high school either. Don’t soften the facts, don’t fluff it up, don’t omit it. Yes, American history has its dark periods, but it’s part of our story, it’s still part of who we are. It is who we are, it is our heritage, what we are living up to, and we have a right to all of it, the good and the bad, the good so we can know where to look for an example, and the bad so we can make it better and leave those dark periods behind. It is our history, and should not be shortened, should not be cut, should not be cheated in any way, we should know it. It is our history, our legacy, our identity, we should know it.
Yes, there is something very wrong with America’s history that is taught in schools today. So many facts are missing, so many have changed, names and places that parents don’t recognize are prominent on the pages of their children’s textbooks, and as these names and places change yet again only a few years later, the picture changes and is left empty in places and a new kind of America, as incomplete and different from the first is the one the parents knew. The identity known to one generation and another are no longer the same: this should not be. America’s stories should be told, all of her stories should be told. Not just of one character, not just of the good times, not just of the bad. Not just with the intent to teach students to think like historians, but to bring understanding. History is heritage, it is a legacy, an identity. America is one, or ought to be, and students should be taught to be one. America should be one in spirit, and should be taught the spirit of her stories.