A Realistic Solution…

We have a lot of internal problems (as individuals) that we are going to have force ourselves to not only acknowledge, but adjust as well. Our society implies apprehension in the view askew, being the impressionable children, we absorb and emulate. Gill recommended a book, called “Lies my Teacher Told Me.”1 As it happens, I love history, but usually get frustrated with historical textbooks that could have only been written by a bunch of people that seem to have felt compelled to omit our mistakes as a people, as nations, and as individuals historically. Also as it happens, “Lies…” is about that very problem. The aftermath of Heroification is nothing less than being taught to believe in a lie, if only to serve up history on a warm and fuzzy plate. In deceiving our children, we lend our future to a generation of misled individuals…sooner or later…this will destabilize any confidence in our nation and world outlook. I preparing out children with more factual information, we prepare them for the future. Please read on in Gill’s excerpt:

Gillian Ring2, speaking in reference to “Lies My Teachers Told Me” , on racism and the effect of heroification on the education system.
23 September 2008

Racism is thought to be a thing of the past, but it appears to be just as prevalent today as it was during some of the worst moments in history. The misconception begins in the classroom and lasts a lifetime, causing people to not realize the severity of their actions after society has numbed them to the less evident racism of today. The purpose of this paper is to inform you of the origin of racism and its continued existence today. By recognizing how little we have progressed in the fight against racism, we may become more conscious of our actions, presenting a more effective method of eliminating it. First, I will define racism. Then, I will discuss several examples of racism that have continued from the past to the present. Finally, I will explain how we may remedy the racism in our nation.

In order to determine the relationship between racism throughout history and its effect on the present, we must first know what racism is. Racism is an attitude or belief that people of a different origin are inferior. This attitude is revealed through the actions everywhere in our lives that demean people who appear to be different from ourselves. Many people are not even aware of their racist actions, but that does not make them any less cruel or influential. Racism is visible everywhere in our country from the “Jim Crow Election” of 2000 to the use of racial stereotypes as mascots. Living in a country with such prevailing racism can be very damaging and leave people feeling victimized and unable to pursue certain lifestyles. Due to their differences, they see their way of life mocked and butchered. Unfortunately, as a nation we accept this disgrace called racism and go forward blindly, thinking we are progressing as a nation. Citizens see their country growing and have difficulty seeing the tainted aspects of it. This prevents progress in certain areas, including the elimination of racism, making those subjected to it live with little hope of change due to the country’s refusal to accept faults.

While there are countless examples of racism throughout history which Loewen touches on, such as the lack of information regarding Columbus’s cruelty toward the natives, the absence of Native Americans’ stories in significant moments of history, the government’s support of slavery, the little known, harsh truth behind Reconstruction, the negative image of John Brown versus the positive image of Abraham Lincoln, the supported image of the United States being heroic by giving assistance to countries that fall victim to overly-convenient crises, and various corrupt governmental actions, only a few can be addressed. The examples I would like to focus on are the incidents of racism evident through voting restrictions and the use of Native Americans stereotypes for mascots.

One of the most important aspects of democracy is suffrage. Throughout history people have struggled to achieve their right to vote, and one of the most well known examples is the African American Civil Rights Movement. The government failed on multiple occasions to act, making their aversion to universal suffrage evident. Citizens, however, took their own course of action, causing the government to eventually respond by passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (Loewen 230). Following this, the Jim Crow Laws became an explicit example of continued racism with the intent of preventing those of different origins from participating in the democratic process. The racism continues today in many instances, one of which is shown in “American Blackout.” The presidential election of 2000 became a “virtual blackout” as African Americans and Hispanics were denied their votes through unjust means (American Blackout). The people’s voice was manipulated and suppressed just as it has been in history. However, the reality of the situation which prevented certain people from voting is not as well known as it should be. The censorship of the information regarding the unconstitutional election practices prevented the public from accepting the reality of this racist mindset. The very influential role that the media plays in the lives of the American public causes blind belief in news reports. The ignorance prevents the possibility of change, which in turn prevents us as a nation from eradicating racism. The racist ideas of the past have survived and does not show any signs of relinquishing its hold on the American people. Thus, this ideal held by the people will continue as long as there is ignorance.

Another example of racism that has continued throughout American history is the attitude toward Native Americans. From the moment the Europeans set foot on the Americas, Native Americans have been cheated, oppressed, and even massacred. In my opinion, however, I believe that the psychological damage that white Americans have subjected Native Americans to is one of the worst fates we have caused anyone to live through. Ben Nava, in his lecture about the difficulties that Native Americans must face today, brought the psychological damage caused to Native Americans into perspective. He explained that the suicide rate among Native Americans is one of the highest in the nation. Native Americans are not credited for the assistance that they gave to European Americans. If more people knew that Native Americans helped form the democracy that we now live under, perhaps they would be more inclined to allow them the rights of the democracy (Loewen 110-111). Events, such as the Trail of Tears or unjust responses to Native American existence, truly makes the victimized lives that they have lived evident. Today, one of the main racist actions that Native Americans are subjected to is the mocking representation of their culture through mascots. “In Whose Honor” relates Charlene Teters’s journey to make the insult to her people through the misrepresentation of their customs and lifestyle known to the world. The mascots take the lifestyle of a people that value the smallest detail and destroyed the image of them. Not only have the mascots been brought into existence, but the Native Americans who have protested the caricature have been immediately shot down with the claim that the mascots are a form of respect to their people (“In Whose Honor”). The only information that the American people receive in regard to Native American customs are stereotypical, false, childish, and singular. The result is a limited impression and view of a diverse and interesting culture. Thus, our current understanding of Native Americans is less than it has ever been, which is yet another example of how ignorance affects our treatment of those different from ourselves. In this case, it results in racism that strains the entire race.

The remedy for the continuing racism lies mainly in the education and atmosphere of today. As Loewen addresses throughout his book, textbooks’ failure to truthfully extrapolate on events of the past keep us ignorant. This ignorance is one cause of racism. Without experiencing the actual events, we have no ability to “understand…the past and present workings of racism in American society” (Loewen 170). With classes that take the positive and negative historic aspects of the United States into account, we could atone for our mistakes by learning what to change in our lives. This parallels the atmosphere of our society. As Stephen Decatur said, “Our country . . . may she always be in the right” (Loewen 229). We have become so accustomed to seeing ourselves as correct, we are unable to change our worst side. After all, our selective memory prevents us from recognizing the worst side of ours.

After defining racism, relating past to present racism, and explaining a solution to the prevalent racism in the country, the misconception begins in the classroom and lasts a lifetime, causing people do not realize the severity of their actions after society has caused them to be numbed to the unaware racism of today, becomes evident. There is just as much racism in the United States today as there has ever been. Due to our lack of knowledge, “pupil[s are] urged to follow in the footsteps of [their] forbears, to offer unquestioning obedience to the law of the land, and to carry on the work begun” (Loewen 93). We should question this law and our origins as a protest to the racism in today’s world, making our own mark on the path of history.

After reading this, I couldn’t quite understand something. Specifically, where is the opposition in an idea so tactfully rendered? Where is the public outcry for/against? As it happens, I found it. Some historians, well, actually, some educators step forward and have voiced concern and disagreement regarding the idea that heroification is damaging. However in an attempt to sound as if he were an authority, citing a straw man3 fallacy as follows from Powell at History At Our House4:

Loewen makes the claim that Americans are taught to think of George Washington as if he were “ten feet tall, blemish-free, with the body of a Greek god.” As evidence for this view, he presents a picture of a sculpture created by Horatio Greenough:

What is so funny about Loewen’s claim is that it’s such an obvious straw man. Nobody thinks of Washington this way. When this work was unveiled it was very controversial, and although it now sits in the Smithsonian, it does so because it has been relegated to that location, not because it is a celebrated portrayal.

Luckily for everyone else that read Lies My Teacher Told Me, this was one of the most minor citations and only is specifically an example of heroification, hence the controversy the sculpture has generated. If this is Loewen’s weakest link…Loewen wins, hand’s down! Another very important controversial topic sits with the actions of Christopher Columbus and his actual role in “proving” the earth was round rather than flat, coupled further with the albeit near-genocidal enslavement of native Americans upon discovering them. A man seeking profit, gold, and glory from a country not his own makes slaves of an entire people, forces an entire people to mine and farm and cultivate wealth for him. Is what we should look to as a hero? Powell argues the simple distinction rendered here. To me, accuracy is everything. As long as history books are rendering only the warm and fuzzy details to our culture, we will never acclimate to the accuracy of our own nature. This isn’t about one nation anymore. I think we as a global community owe it to ourselves and our neighbors to educate accurately. This would better prepare our newest minds for solutions…we should desire no less for future generations than to allow them the tools and information necessary to render decisions and opinions based on fact rather than politically motivated (and censored) literature. Our own educational system can hardly be held as the only example here, but as a country that prides itself on setting the example, we fall drastically short in being clear about our own history.

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted, it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in which instinct has learned nothing from experience.

-George Santayana5

My point exactly. If we’re failing to fully educate our own in history. How ever could they be given the opportunity to learn from those historical challenges and decisions. This censorship leads us down a path originating from perspectives that were created by an textbook author rather than the minds and actual actions of those most qualified to serve as example.

The list of examples astounded me once I began researching these scenarios where historical figures were artfully drawn into whatever the author felt like portraying them as…staunch and honorable presidents, political leaders, etc. I didn’t take a strong interest in history until a few years into college, and even then I was bathing in philosophical literature and computer related media so much that I was never fully aware of how poorly rendered historical archetypes can be in present educational systems. In researching this, I came across an essay by Zachary Elder summarizing many of these same examples and many more. You can find it HERE.

As far as finding a solution, the problem presented is substantiated by the financial viability (from the publisher’s point of view) for those textbooks and educational media set forth in arenas usually centered around textbook adoption boards and their criteria. Some states are putting forth the effort to broaden this base by making available positions in the evaluation system to the public rather than solely by a review board. Multiple universities are now offering courses and seminars specifically addressing censorship in historical texts. My idea was to try to find the funding to create an educational review system (likely a moderated system online with us-er/reviewer/audience-level access) that would allow for a wider reviewer base…not altogether different from digg, where popular opinion would be measured far more accurately, centering around history professors, educators, and students rather than publisher’s favorites. The bottom line…as long as the publishers cater only to those texts which will not generate a perceived negative reaction from the intended readers, the availability of texts that don’t exclude the broader scope by eliminating details that paint a clearer picture of those the educational system teaches about, the cycle of heroification is doomed to repeat itself, every bit as easily as the untaught lesson in history.

Show 5 footnotes

  1. Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen. A comprehensive look at the the damage heroification has made on the education system and its negative impact on promoting a racism-free environment for students.
  2. Gill Ring is a good friend and we spoke at length regarding this particular topic, it was actually this paper that clarified this problem to me.
  3. The straw man fallacy is the tactic in argument of misrepresenting an opponent’s position, making it appear more implausible, so that it can more easily be refuted, then going ahead and arguing against the imputed position as though it were really that of the opponent.The Oxford Companion to Philosophy,2005 by Ted Honderich
  4. History At Our House is a immensely useful resource for both student and home-schooling administrators, while I completely disagree with the opinion expressed in his articles defending heroification, he contributes a respectable amount of useful literature, I recommend looking up the website if you gt the chance.
  5. This is a quote from George Santayana, in The Life of Reason, Volume 1. Very good reading. He is one of the few philosophers whose literary works include a modicum of humor, while still presenting viable argument. Some are critical of this, but I like it.