Every Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario. This is one of those columns I wrote ages ago and never had the guts to publish. I made a few changes to bring it up to date and sent it in last week because I didn’t have time to write a new one. I think I’m going to blasted in the Letters to the Editor section for this week’s!
When I ask my young friends what their least favourite subject is, they invariably say “history”. I’m always amazed, because history’s so exciting! But perhaps the problem is not our illustrious and rather violent ancestors, but instead the way schools teach it.
In England, for instance, Vikings were once rightfully depicted as fierce raiders. But not anymore. Since 1994, England’s textbooks have depicted them as farmers who settled in Scandinavia and “expanded” from there (no word about how that expansion was carried out). That’s too bad, because Vikings are great fun to study! There’s blood, gore, pillaging, backstabbing, and all kinds of hair-raising tales. Yet kids will now be forced to learn about how the Vikings wanted to settle in France because of the longer growing season. It’s history without all those nasty bits, which, not uncoincidentally, is history without all the action.
It’s also history without any context. Although almost all students will hear about America’s history with slavery, for instance, fewer will learn that slavery was practised by almost all cultures until relatively recently. Nor will they hear that slavery is still practised in some parts of North Africa, two hundred years after it was abolished in the British empire, largely by the crusade of several Christian politicians, and one hundred and fifty years after it was abolished in the United States by the blood of both black and white. Yet don’t these facts matter if we’re going to try to understand slavery’s causes and legacy?
I don’t know what Canadian textbooks are like, though I had a peek with some geography resources we purchased at a library sale. The University of Toronto published a series of pamphlets covering all the countries in the world. We bought about 80 of them, and while perusing them I came across several interesting “facts”. Did you know that Cuba has complete freedom of religion? It’s too bad those priests and pastors in Castro’s jails haven’t been informed of that. And that after Israel declared independence in May 1948 a civil war broke out? I thought it generally was not called a civil war when five foreign powers invade you (in this case, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq). That’s like calling World War II the French Civil War.
It’s as if the goal is not to teach facts, but to make sure kids have the right opinions. We’ve begun censoring ourselves horribly. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is being rewritten, with the infamous “n-word” changed to “slave”. CNN recently apologized for using the word “crosshairs” on its broadcast, since reminding people of Sarah Palin’s supposedly vitriolic rhetoric might inspire violence, forgetting that they themselves recently had a news show called “Crossfire”. We’re so interested in advancing the right opinions that we’re changing history. Yet how can kids—or anyone for that matter—form a coherent opinion without the facts?
I am reminded of a story a professor at NYU once told. On the first day of classes every year, he asks the students, “Who said, ‘religion is the opiate of the masses’?” Usually no one hazards a guess. So one year he gave a hint. “He was German.” An African-American girl offered, “Martin Luther?”, at which point all the students started to snicker. The professor was flabbergasted. Martin Luther was a German, and he did write about religion, so it was actually a good guess. Then he heard one boy whisper, “Don’t you know he was black?” The students assumed she meant Martin Luther King, Jr. What saddened the professor was not that they didn’t know the answer (it’s Karl Marx); it was that they didn’t even understand their own ignorance. I hope we put a stop to this historical revisionism, before ignorance is all we have left.
Don’t miss a Reality Check! Sign up to receive it FREE in your inbox every week!