Monday, May 17, 2010

Making History

I don't often read nonfiction; in general, I find almost anything preferable to reality. However, Jame Loewen's thought-provoking 1996 revisionist text managed to snooker me in with its seductive title: LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME. Although it's filled with surprising information about famous American figures from John Brown to Helen Keller, this book is not primarily a history of the United States. Rather, it's a book-length book review of twelve of the crappiest works of nonfiction imaginable: a representative sampling of high school American history textbooks.

Let me backtrack for a second here. When I was a teenager, I attended (and eventually dropped out of) a conservative religious high school in the Midwest, the kind of hell where a boy with a ponytail gets sent to the principal's office and a girl with a crew cut gets sent to a guidance counselor. Pep rallies were mandatory, and they looked like this:

The Anti-Sex League was a popular alternative to cheerleading.

In short, I hated nearly every minute I spent enclosed in those ironically god-forsaken halls, and the classrooms were even worse. But one class I didn't entirely detest was AP American history. Our teacher was a tremulous-voiced madman so powdered with chalk dust he looked like he'd just survived an explosion, and he addressed us as "children," but with a tone of urgency that suggested not storytime but the last hope of mankind. His lessons on the innumerable tariffs, bills, battles, and Presidents whose progression informed the weekly quizzes were engaging enough, if only because of his forceful way of starting class discussions -- "Children, children! What do you think of this?!" -- but he really came to life on Fridays, when he allowed himself to indulge his passion: conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assasination. To start us off on these paranoid diversions, he always brought in photocopies of what he cryptically referred to as his "documents": telegrams, letters, redacted newspaper articles, photographs, receipts, and an array of other primary source materials, generally involving Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby, LBJ, Kennedy himself, Nixon, or the Cubans. What made these sessions fascinating were not the particular half-baked theories we cooked up as explanations during the discussion, but the sensation that we were actually doing history: that he was empowering us to parse out for ourselves an interpretation of primary sources, and that our conclusions might be as valuable -- even more valuable -- than anything already published in a book.

Part of the reason I found LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME interesting is that Loewen does not set out simply to set the record straight about common historical misconceptions. His larger and more important project is a rethinking of both the way historical narratives are presented and the pedagogy surrounding these narratives. Loewen isn't as much worried that high schoolers don't know "the truth," but that they don't care. Again and again, he points out something that's obvious to anyone who remembers their high school history textbook (and probably even more obvious to those who don't): these books are boring. Before textbook authors can even begin to redress the grave omissions -- and there are many -- they must first learn to write. As Loewen puts it, "Textbooks unfold history without real drama or suspense, only melodrama." Figures from Christopher Columbus to Woodrow Wilson are subjected to what he terms "heroification." In an attempt to cast them as aspirational role models, authors strip them of any potentially controversial qualities, and they become one-dimensional, featureless, indistinguishable figures in an endless parade of feel-good Americana. Positive changes in American life and culture never meet with government (or popular) resistance; progress moves inexorably forward. Events are causeless, struggles without visible opposition, and the outcome -- American triumph -- is never in doubt. This happens again and again in the passages Loewen quotes, even at the level of the sentences, when the authors use the passive voice. It's not just that the books are inaccurate; they don't ring true, because they ignore the significance-making conventions of traditional storytelling -- even more specifically, of good fiction writing.

Potentially, I think this claim is far more earth-shaking than the more specific critiques Loewen advances about the content of sections on slavery, the Vietnam War, and the Pilgrims. It seems to me that if we truly see history as a series of stories we tell ourselves about the past, then it becomes something that can -- and should -- aspire to the condition of art. But, many people would argue, isn't that just total relativism? Are all interpretations created equal? If a "better story" makes for "better history," then can't just anyone be a historian?

The answer, of course, is both yes and no. For something to qualify as history rather than a novel or re-imagining, it obviously must be based in research and verifiable evidence. But beyond that, I do think we should hold history, along with other forms of narrative nonfiction, to the same standards as fiction. It's not enough for a textbook, revisionist or traditionalist, liberal or conservative, to reproduce names and dates for our perusal. It must transform that material into something meaningful, or else it teaches us nothing worth knowing. In a scene from the Steve Martin play Picasso at the Lapin Agile, the character of Albert Einstein offers that his profession is just as concerned with beauty as any artist's: "...the theories must be beautiful. You know why the sun doesn't revolve around the earth? Because the idea is not beautiful enough. If you're trying to prove that the sun revolves around the earth, in order to make the theory fit the facts, you have to have the planets moving backwards, and the sun doing loop-de-loops. Way too ugly." Picasso asks him, "So you're not just describing the world as it is?" and Einstein replies, "No! We are creating a new way of looking at the world!" I would submit that students should learn to see history the same way: as something made, by and for the human mind.

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