Sentimental myths harm our history

18th November 2005 at 00:00
The mourning of Rosa Parks put me in mind of a conversation I had about her with my daughter. When she was in first grade she told me they had been learning in class about the "civilisation rights" movement. She said Rosa Parks was a "tired old black lady" who one day refused to give up her bus seat to a white man, and got arrested.

I kindly rebuked her. Rosa Parks was black, certainly, but she was not tired, old, or, to be honest, much of a lady, at least on that day. She was a troublemaker, an activist, someone who devoted a great deal of her life to attending long meetings, handing out propaganda, knocking on doors to make the case for social justice. Tireless, not tired. And, on that day, as anyone who has deliberately flouted the law for a political cause knows, not at all tired; nervous, tense, anxious, but not tired.

Yet my daughter's description is enshrined in numerous high schools textbooks. The Civil Rights movement is seen here (at least in the northern states) as an unalloyed good, so it is considered indecent to tell the full truth about it to children. What we tell is supposed to fit with a grander narrative of American history; a story of great Americans, who embodied distinctively American values.

Why? American educators see history as having a vital role in promoting patriotic attachment, and the way we teach it is supposed to reflect that role. Former Tory education spokesman Tim Collins would find his view of history as a weapon widely endorsed here. In a speech last year he said:

"Nothing is more important to the survival of the British nation than an understanding among its young of our shared heritage and the nature of the struggles, foreign and domestic, which have secured our freedoms."

High-school textbooks normally share this stance; one text which has sold millions of copies described General MacArthur as a "true American hero"

and Martin Luther King as a "natural leader, American to the core".

In Britain this patriotic fervour would be the preserve of a certain kind of conservative, but here in the United States it is pervasive. Professor Gary Nash, a historian associated with the left, describes the debate between the left and right over which heroes to emphasise and which events to explore in detail as an argument "between two visions of patriotic history. On one side are those who believe that young people will love and defend the United States if they see it as superior to other nations and regard its occasional falls from grace as short pauses or detours in the continuous flowering of freedom, capitalism and opportunity... On the other side are historians who believe that amor patriae is nurtured by looking squarely at the past, warts and all."

Conservatives want to teach about Jefferson and Washington, without mentioning their slave-owning; liberals want to teach about Martin Luther King without mentioning his plagiarism and philandering. Both want to promote patriotic sentiment.

The Rosa Parks example shows how dangerous this can be. Sometimes the whole truth just doesn't suit the purposes of the patriots. Presenting Parks as a naif fuels a sentimental national myth, but gives a deeply misleading impression of how social processes work.

Parks sparked a movement because the NAACP had prepared the groundwork, and because they had chosen someone with a well-deserved reputation for integrity as a community activist to break the law. Things don't change when random people defy the law, but only as a result of an incredible amount of hard work and a good deal of luck. The version of Parks that suits the national story obscures this important fact about historical change.

Personally, I don't think the truth about Parks diminishes her in the slightest. She was, on the contrary, a greater person than the myth presents her as being. But that is beside the point; the point is to teach history, a serious, and difficult, academic subject, rather than to use stories about the past to pursue our political agendas of the present.

Harry Brighouse is professor of philosophy and affiliate professor of education policy studies at Wisconsin university, Madison, US

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