Feel-good, no-think history

U.S. history books are filled with pristine role models, complains Jonathan Zimmerman in the LA Times. He blames our infatuation with psychology, which was cited in the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case. Segregation was wrong, said the court, because it made black children feel inferior.

By the 1960s, African Americans and their liberal white allies would use the same rationale for desegregating American history textbooks: Black kids needed to “see themselves” in the books or their self-esteem would suffer.

. . . Up until this time, we should remember, most American history books either denigrated or ignored African Americans. In the South, textbooks called slavery a benevolent institution, and Northern books were little better, depicting slaves as childlike victims who morphed into marauding savages during Reconstruction. Today, our students no longer read such racist drivel in school; instead, they learn about great African Americans like Martin Luther King. This reform is one of the great achievements of that same history.

But these gains came at a cost. For whenever a new racial luminary moved into our textbooks, he — or, increasingly, she — also moved beyond reproach.

. . . Before long, of course, whites began complaining that accounts of slavery and racial violence harmed their kids’ fragile minds. “Education is getting a positive image about oneself,” fumed a white Michigan parent in 1974, condemning a textbook that described white attacks upon blacks during the Chicago Race Riot of 1919. “No child, white or black, will get a positive image by reading about stabbings, war, the problems.” Once Brown enshrined self-esteem as the highest American value, in short, an honest American history became impossible.

To understand history, students must do more than simply “see themselves” in it; they need to grapple with its enigmas, its ambiguities and its inconsistencies. But they’ll never do that if we’re overeager to protect their psyches, which are far less delicate than most adults suspect.

I also strongly dislike the idea that children require role models of matching race, ethnicity and gender.

About Joanne


  1. theAmericanist says:

    Some years back, the Ellis Island Foundation gave the late Barbara Jordan an award for exemplifying the meaning of Ellis Island. Some African-American groups objected, noting that Ellis Island was not primarily (or even tertiarily) an African-American experience. When somebody boldly asked Jordan what she thought of this, she said something to this effect: I am an American. ALL of American history belongs to me — George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and Ellis Island and Theodore Roosevelt and FDR, no less than Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner or Marcus Garvey. How dare you suggest that because I’m black I should disregard or be denied any part of MY heritage?

  2. Amen, Barbara.

  3. PJ/Maryland says:

    I also strongly dislike the idea that children require role models of matching race, ethnicity and gender.

    One practical reason for avoiding this diversity of role models is, by the time you’ve included a Cambodian do-gooder and a Swiss role model and an Ethiopian exemplar, there’s no room for actual history.

    For example, it’s nice to know that one of the five men killed in the Boston Massacre was black, but isn’t it more important to understand how the event fits into the beginnings of the American Revolution? And it gets hard to separate the created role models from the real ones: remember learning about George Washington Carver? It turns out he was actually a scientist of note, but always seemed to be tacked on to the post-Civil War lesson solely because he was black. (“He discovered 101 uses for the peanut.” But we don’t have time to discuss how important chemical synthesis is in today’s world.)

  4. Richard Brandshaft says:

    This is not a recent development, and it isn’t about blacks. When I was a kid, it was George Washington and the cherry tree, which was told as a true story. (We were never told why a kid would want to chop down a cherry tree.) The kind of thing Zimmermen describes is exactly the reaction conservatives have when white establishment figures get similar treatment.

    Mr. Zimmerman, in the unlikely you are reading this, here is something to say the day before you retire:

    Almost all married men want to commit adultery. The ones who are such wimps they never do it seldom get into history books as heroes. If you think the great man’s marriage is a relevant part of history, ask this: How did he treat his wife? Did he callously trade her in on a younger model when she hit 40? When she was hospitalized for cancer treatment, did he visit her with divorce papers? Or did he treat her decently, despite sleeping with other women?

  5. Mr. Brandshaft, your view of human nature is quite interesting.

    Why would a kid chop down a cherry tree? Because it is there. Anybody who ever was a human child ought to know that.

    The idea that any man who would not commit adultery must be a wimp is breathtaking in its wrongness.

    What planet are you from?

  6. Tsk, tsk. That naughty Parson Weems.

  7. theAmericanist says:

    Oy… I gotta admit though, that what I love about the cherry tree story is its trajectory through our culture. Parson Weems made it up to teach the moral lesson that one shouldn’t lie (sic). But PT Barnum was the guy who really made it famous, because he found some old lady who could — barely — plausibly claim to have been George Washington’s nurse when he was a little boy, which at the time would have made her about 120 years old. SHE told the story as part of Barnum’s travelling shows before the Civil War. (She was probably about 80.)

    Still — rather than some nonsense about fidelity (got issues, dude?), what I’d love to see kids learn about Washington is an appreciation of what a feat it was for him to wind up condemning slavery, himself. I mean, Washington was born into and raised in a society that owned slaves the way families now own cars. Yet by moral reasoning he worked out for himself that it was both wrong and bad economics — THAT was a feat that any kid today could usefully emulate.

  8. “Parson Weems made it up to teach the moral lesson that one shouldn’t lie (sic).”

    Yeah, that is ironic. I think one reason for its trajectory, as you put it, is that we can all identify with the impulsive act (or some of us can, at least) and we’d like to aspire to the moral courage that went with it.

  9. Richard Nieporent says:

    Or did he treat her decently, despite sleeping with other women?

    Except for that Ms. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?

  10. I don’t mind including role models from all ethniticies and genders — IF IT FITS. I got so tired with my high school history book of having sections in EVERY SINGLE CHAPTER devoted to women and ethnic minorities. I’m sorry, but in the 1700s there weren’t too many non-white non-males in positions of historical importance, so those sections felt horribly forced. Fortunately, the book didn’t cut out anything to make room for those sections, but it meant that the textbook was so gigantic it got split into two volumes.

  11. This afflicts more than just history. In English, we have to include so many works by “minority” groups that everything is squeezed out of the way, leaving nothingness and indecision behind.

    For example, the Norton Anthologies of Literature grow in size every edition, because the editors have to include works by whatever “minority” dominates the spotlight that year – yet they never lose all the old stuff so as to avoid offending anyone.

    Therefore, a book designed for a semester long survey of literature course has grown so large that it is impossible to cover even 10 percent of its contents.

  12. theAmericanist says:

    I think that might have been part of the point of our friend regarding infidelity — lots of ‘heroic’ people in history are downright sleazy. Crispus Attucks was probably a good example — he’s the approximately African-American guy who was killed in Boston Masssacre. But what little direct evidence there is suggests he was apparently as much Native-American as he was black.

    What really bugs me, though, is trying to make every hero into not merely the model of all virtue, but also an ethnic icon. Crispus Attucks was more like a dockside thug : why not teach it that way?

    It makes history more, not less interesting, if you teach it as it was and challenge kids, instead of pretty falsification.

  13. I loved a teacher I had in 4th Grade. She complained about all the English books and their use of multiethnic names in the sentences we had to divide into subject, verb, et cetera. She finally had it one day when there was a sentence with a Korean girl handing a something to an African boy. The names weren’t anything we Minneapolis suburb children had ever encountered before, and her outburst at our verbal frustration is something I’ve remembered through three decades: “I don’t care if you call her Penelope or Pee-Nee-Lope just as long as you know what he or she does to whom.”

    We’ve been all noun, no predicate ever since.

  14. theAmericanist says:

    LOL — on the other hand, Minneapolis/St. Paul is now one of the most immigrant heavy communities in the country, with a substantial population of Ethiopian and Somali refugees, as well as a steady flow of Mexicans.

  15. Parson Weems was not using the Cherry Tree story to teach the moral lesson of not lying.

    Parson Weems had a history also. I believe his son committed suicide, because of some moral failing and his humiliation of perhaps having to tell his father.

    Weems was “projecting” his own life into the story about George Washington. The Cherry Tree story was expression of what a loving father would do in accepting an honest statement of sin, by his son. Parson Weems did not show that compassion to his own son, with tragic results.

  16. Fuzzy Rider says:

    You have to take the past, warts and all, or you are not studying history. The more I get into this history stuff, actually, the more interesting the ‘warts’ become! It is comforting to know that some of our icons, in addition to being great heroes, were also normal men and women.

  17. Judge Robert Bork pointed out the essential weakness of the logic underpinning Brown v. Board of Ed. and was roundly condemned for doing so, as well as being denied a place on the Supreme Court.

    He did not argue in favor of segretation, as those who sought to smear him suggested. He argued that achieving de-segregation through such a dubious and expedient argument would have disastrous long-term consequences. He was destroyed politically for saying so.

    He was right. Saying the truth in these matters continues to be a guarantee of personal political suicide. Brown v. Board of Education was bad law. It really was. And de-segregation could have been achieved without creating bad law. Herein was born the modern liberal belief that using litigation to achieve one’s ends has no limits. And, also the belief that the use of the law for this purpose has no negative repercussions. That is, as long as the desired end is achieved.

  18. Bob Diethrich says:

    Some of the people here are echoing the same sentiments that got me called a racist in another discussion here last week.

    By tryint to shoehorn the perspectives of gays, women, third worlders, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans etc. into every single chapter of the history book the real stuff gets left out!

    They are left with a very incomplete, hap hazard view of the ebb and flow of major events. They know who Crispus Atticks was but they are cluless as to the effect of the Townsend Duties and the Stamp Act on building the resentment that caused those drunked thugs to begin insulting armed British soldiers in Dec. 1770.

  19. But they don’t want to teach the kids just exactly what drove our ancestors to revolt – they might get the idea that it was past time to do it again.

  20. Fred Drinkwater says:

    I recommend on this topic “Lies My Teacher Told Me” (James Loewen) which is primarily about the awful state of American History textbooks, but which also includes by way of gruesome illustration many examples of the severe distortion and errors of omission in those books.

  21. theAmericanist says:

    Personally (I was working in the Senate at the time), if there was one judicial/legal opinion that got Bork, it wasn’t his take on Brown, but on Roe and Griswold: Judge Bork (whom I interviewed once) does not believe in the Constitutionally-derived right to privacy that was found to overturn bans on contraception and abortion.

    If there was one political act that got him, it was that he fired Archibald Cox on Nixon’s orders.

    It is highly unlikely that the Supreme Court is ever gonna confront another Jim Crow case. But privacy and executive authority are perennials.

    His view of Brown was just so much icing compared with those two.

  22. JimInNOVA says:

    Is it just me, or does “Bork” sound like a euphamism for something really dirty?

  23. nobody important says:

    The real hero of the so-called “Boston Massacre” was John Adams who successfully defended the Brittish soldiers in court. He took a real risk in defending these men, but did so because he believed in the right to receive a fair trial and in the rule of law. He went on to champion these ideas in the creation of the US Constitution.

    Unlike the Virginians, he was no hypocrite and meant it when he said that freedom was every man’s right.

  24. theAmericanist says:



  1. History teaching on Three Wise Monkeys principle

    Leaving out all the good bits? Go with the safe Joe Louis rather than Jack Johnson. Actually, not so safe…