Recently, a hue and cry was raised about the bizarre reality that the content of US textbooks is ostensibly decided by a small board in Texas, who as it happens, are Christian fundamentalists. Hence, the Deist Thomas Jefferson is no longer considered a father of the American nation. Personally, I understand the distress; but as a historian-in-training, I tend to look at the controversy differently.
First off, history is quite often controversial. There are controversies about what facts are true, what interpretations of those facts are valid, and what events should be emphasized. History often clashes with tradition, its close relative. An Indian colleague recently commented that an advantage of studying Mughal history in America is that you needn’t fear writing something that leads angry mobs of Hindu nationalists to drag you out into the street. As with individual psychology, nations tend to know who they are by who they’ve been in the past. The need to whitewash is as pressing in terms of the nation, but as with individuals, the repressed always resurfaces; whether or not the second time is farce. We might not repeat the mistakes of the past, but we often approximate them.
Nevertheless, the second point is that, as an aspiring historian, I see historical study as worthwhile in and of itself. Studying the human past gives us a greater understanding of what it means to be human, a way of comparing the different paths taken by societies, and a neutral space to explore our own beliefs, values and ideas. It also provides a sense of the historical and civilizational contexts within which we find ourselves. It expands the ground of our being. It is good for you.
The problem is that straight back to the nineteenth century German schooling model discussions of curriculum have seldom treated history as an end unto itself. And here is the rest of it.Instead, history has usually been instrumentalized as a means to some other end. Instead of studying history to gain historical sense, students are to study history because it provides “critical thinking skills”, or it inculcates certain “values”. Instead of developing a holistic and coherent picture of the historical context of one’s self and society, the goal is to make use of “lessons” from history to demonstrate how to be a good citizen, or an advocate for social justice, or a tolerant individual.
Universities make the same mistake. Read a course catalog and you’ll find that most universities justify their mandatory history courses by the appeal to “skills” instead of appealing to a vision of a good life. The result is an unjustifiable incoherence to their course offerings, and no explanation about why students should study history if they could gain “critical thinking skills” elsewhere. As a student once asked: “Why should I read this dialogue by Plato? It’s not like I’m not going to be a Greek historian.”
High School education, meanwhile, seems to have chosen “values” over a deeper and broadened selfhood. If we hope to offer advertisements for a particular value, in this case Christian faith, then Jefferson should go; if the goal is to gain a richer understanding of the American story and enrich one’s experience as an American, it’s both incomprehensible and abhorrent that this education would exclude the debate between Jefferson and Hamilton in the Federalist Papers.
So, this textbook controversy, while upsetting, is informed by a larger misguided belief that history is only worthwhile as a means to another end. When the Texas mandarins decided to remove Oscar Romero, it was entirely likely that Romero was there in the first place in order to inculcate a belief in social justice and removed to make more room to inculcate Christian and capitalist beliefs. In other words, if you see history as a means to an end, its use as propaganda is to be expected; the question is more about which propagandist will prevail.
Propagandists see all culture as a means to an end, and all knowledge as an instrument of power. Thus, they tend to write off scholars as “so-called experts”, pronouncing the word “expert” as if it was something they stepped in while walking through a public park. Let’s not forget that certain segments of the radical left spent a good part of the early 90s trying to remove the “right wing propaganda about dead white males” from university courses. Nevertheless, if all you see in Shakespeare is “White, Western male propaganda”, or if all you see in Jefferson is “godlessness” you are, to put it bluntly, a goddamned fool.
The argument from the Texas mandarins and the “Western Civ has got to go!” crowd is the same: all scholarship is propaganda, so why not have our propaganda? This is the Foucaultian argument that knowledge doesn’t exist outside of power taken to its logical conclusion. The corollary is that intellectual self-determination is impossible, so selfhood also can’t exist outside of power. When people make this argument, I generally wonder if they’re describing the state of things as existing or as they’d like it to be. And at some point, I think it’s possible to be troubled by all the havoc that “experts” have caused in bureaucratic societies over the last two centuries, while still recognizing that their critics are often really attacking the possibility of a neutral intellectual space outside of power. It’s often a short stride from kicking a scholar to goose stepping.