Don’t (Want To) Know Much About History…

I always liked that old Sam Cooke song, “Don’t know much about history…” it seems especially relevant on this Election Day.

A sizable portion of the American public has evidently taken that title as both a motto and a goal, as my friend Pierre Atlas recently wrote in a column for the Indianapolis Business Journal. As he explained in his opening paragraph,

Numerous candidates at all levels of government, from school boards to federal office, want to regulate school curriculum to constrict what kids can learn about the past. Meanwhile, a Zionsville school board candidate has upended the past by sympathetically minimizing the intent of Nazis during World War II. In this hyper-partisan era, even education has become politicized. History is on the ballot in 2022.

Pierre is currently a Senior Lecturer at the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University–having decamped from a full professorship at Marian University, a small Catholic institution in our city. He was originally from “out west,” and his observations about the teaching of history are grounded in his own early education and  later correctives.

This particular column was prompted by a recent trip to a Santa Fe museum, and its exhibit on the subject of “manifest destiny.”

As Pierre relates, when he was a child growing up in Texas and California, “Manifest Destiny was taught as a positive attribute of American nation-building. But that wasn’t even half the story.”

The Santa Fe museum’s interpretive panel first provides the historical source of the term, quoting John L. O’Sullivan, who said in an 1845 newspaper article that the United States had received from providence a “manifest destiny” to spread across the whole continent.

The panel then offers the museum’s interpretive explanation: “Manifest destiny was an idea that the people of the United States would inevitably settle the continent from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. This concept encompassed the belief that white Anglo-Saxons were a special race and rightfully the superiors of other peoples. Their expansion would also spread the ‘blessings’ of Protestant faiths and democracy. Fulfilling this destiny was all-important—and it could be accomplished by force, if necessary.”

As a political scientist who has studied and written about American history, including the government’s Indian policies in the American West, I can confirm that the museum’s interpretation is an important and factually accurate corrective to earlier, celebratory pronouncements about Manifest Destiny.

I’m a good deal older than Pierre, but I too was taught that “manifest destiny” was a good thing– a glorious example of America’s inevitable domination of…well, everything.

Today–Election Day–Manifest Destiny is on our ballots, along with multiple other distortions of American history. As Pierre noted in his column, the duty of a mature democracy is to teach accurate history.

The exhibit in the museum Pierre visited was on the Mexican-American War. That war isn’t taught much, if at all, in high school history classes, because it was a “war launched by the United States for the purpose of territorial expansion, leading to the capture from Mexico of what is today New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah and parts of Colorado and Wyoming. It was a war of aggression.”

Historian Jon Meacham, discussing his new book about Abraham Lincoln and slavery, recently remarked that, “History is not a fairy tale. It does not begin with ‘Once upon a time,’ and it doesn’t end with ‘Happily ever after.’”

The United States was founded as a republic, with slavery. Its expansion across the continent came at the expense of Indigenous peoples and Indigenous lands. White supremacy was embedded in colonial America and written into the Constitution, and it influenced local and national policy and even foreign policy for much of this country’s history.

While America offers much to be proud of, the purpose of teaching history is not to make people feel good, nor to mythologize the past. History should be taught honestly with all its nuances—not to make people feel guilty, but to own up to and explain what really happened. Our present is not fully comprehensible without an accurate accounting of the past. Of course, like any other subject, history should be taught in an age-appropriate manner.

Make no mistake: when “angry parents”–high on propaganda from Fox News and other White Supremicist sources–descend on school board meetings to demand that “CRT” not be taught (not that they could define Critical Race Theory–which is taught exclusively in graduate legal education if at all– if their lives depended upon it), what they are really demanding is an a-historical fantasy in which White Americans were always the good guys.

One of the multiple things you are voting for today is whether to teach history– or fairy tales.


  1. What should be taught is the material contained in Howard Zinn’s history books so that students will obtain an accurate depiction of just how violent the US has been in acquiring much of North America and in its transactions with other nations.

  2. Finally! Dr. Lightner sends an accurate message. Yes. “A People’s History of the United States” should be required reading and school curriculums should be based on it.

    There is nothing noble about “conquering” a continent by stealing it from the original inhabitants. The firearm, imported disease and a stupefying lust for “freedom” and greed created the manifest destiny that gave us our country. As with so many huge societies, the dirty underbelly of their creation should be known.

    Our species-specific arrogance is part of the problem. It’s taught to us as children by another whitewashed history – organized religion. In case we missed it, God isn’t coming to the rescue before we destroy ourselves. It just seems to me that being a little humble sometimes would serve us better than getting another “look-at-me” tattoo or buying another gun.

    All of our other ills and foibles have been discussed on this blog, ad nauseam. The main question remains: What are we really going to do about it? Maybe having the Republicans come in and destroy the Constitution and the right to vote in fair elections will be the wake-up call that snaps us out of our social lethargy, willful ignorance and self-indulgence enough to re-write our beloved document that includes all these fixes.

    Let’s begin by eliminating the Second Amendment and the Electoral College. It would really be a great topic for fantasy writers to imagine a country without those two horrors.

  3. Not that I disagree with you, but …

    One Hoosier teacher was fired for refusing to teach the social intelligence program the school was using … because it did in fact have pieces of CRT in it. She did her research, presented it, and it was pretty clear that the program included offensive pieces taken directly from CRT teaching … expecting children to roll play slave or slave owner.

    It does happen. I saw her presentation and checked it out. Validated.

  4. Context and presentation are missing from history, and as long as the Democratic Party manipulates the teachers via their union, education will be another divisive battlefield.

    Also, the so-called purveyors of history (publishers) write crappola to be shared with our youth.

    It’s even pervasive in higher education, where “centers of study” whitewash history to fit a narrative that the oligarch funders wish to tell. The sociological studies from the 30s called the Middletown Studies were a complete whitewashing of what Muncie looked like as the Ball brothers ruled over the community (and still do with the hefty philanthropic arm saddled with excess profits of days gone past).

    The professors proudly display their George and Frances Ball monikers as benevolent leaders – not the racists indicative of our KKK roots in Indiana during the 19th century. All lies and propaganda, but as long as they have the gold, they make the rules and rewrite history.

    The poor saps voting are all manipulated by the same money. In this case, the Ball family is helped by the Koch oligarchs, who spend their money on negative attack ads under the falsely named “Americans for Prosperity.”

    Who is evil?

    The uneducated voters or the oligarchs use their money to exploit ignorance.

    I call it oppression.

  5. Todd, you remain the MOST uninformed newsman I’ve ever heard of. NO. Teachers unions do NOT manipulate curriculum. Teachers are consulted, but it’s the school boards that create the curriculums at state and local levels. As a former union steward at my high school, I can attest to that situation first-hand.

    Second, the Democratic party is more involved with teaching the truth than the Republicans. Like the Nazis or any other fascist regime, today’s Republican party MUST hide the truth so they can get elected by the dummies who vote for them. In case you missed it, the Ball family was Republican and the Kochs are Libertarian. And yes, the KKK is still alive and well in Indiana. I depicted their white supremacy activities in my novels “Demon Slayer” and “The Medalist”. It was an easy research on a horrific group of idiots.

    Finally, there’s no such thing as critical race theory. It’s a made-up Republican messaging meme designed to stir up the racists among their fetid flock. CRT is just another realm of utter stupidity and lies perpetrated against the same dummies who would sell their mothers into slavery rather than vote for a Democrat.

  6. Look, Republican’s are playing the long game. They have clearly learned that given the right messaging, it’s not only possible to get people to vote against their own self-interests, they can get them to believe in space lasers, pedophilia rings, vote rigging and all sorts of things. They really have mastered using media – including social media, podcasts, etc. to radicalize a population. While Democrats are talking about policy and good governance, Republicans are effectively developing a cult that defies logic, reason or the law.

    Indoctrinating children at an early age to make them receptive to such a message is part of that long game. (Who’s really grooming kids?)

    The battle for our democracy is really taking place 5-10-20-30 years in the past – the elections are really just measuring how effective those battles have been.

  7. Yes, teaching “which facts” is important. Perhaps, at least equally important is teaching critical thinking and its relatives – visual literacy, media literacy, data literacy. One needs to know what happened and how to interpret what happened as objectively/holistically as possible.

  8. It’s really hard to conceive of a history that is any more whitewashed than the one we all learned in grade school and high school. That is the one where “Gone with the Wind” was considered “historical” not just in the fact that it was a novel about the Civil War, but in the righteousness of the southern cause. I’m waiting to see just how stupid we can make our children.

    The one different thing about Manifest Destiny is that we paid for the Gadsden Purchase, which moved the southern borders of Arizona and New Mexico, just a little farther south. If you can’t beat them, buy them. It is, after all, our “destiny.”

  9. My favorite class in grade school was history and social studies. I often won those academic contests in school. I reflect back and realize as I have gotten older and continue to learn is how sterile my history classes were in school and how sterile they continue but the threat is to go further into ‘fairy tales’.

    I work at Vanderbilt and my goal is to attend a Jon Meacham lecture. I love listening to him and Doris Kearns Goodwin. I also enjoy Eddie Glaude and Anand Giridharadas.

  10. I think that such as “From Sea to Shining Sea” fleshes out the idea of “Manifest Destiny” and gave our thieving predecessors poetic license to expand our borders, though the Gadsen Purchase and the purchase of Alaska from Russia broke the mold, and the latter with its pennies per acre and salmon and oil (and without the expense of war to attain its vast expanse) was a bargain. Guam, American Samoa, Hawaii, the Virgin Islands and others all have their stories of how they came under the mantle of American sovereignty.

    So how shall we teach these realities in the schools? Via Zinn, along with Lester’s suggestion of critical thinking and its relatives. Let’s leave the whitewash to Tom Sawyer and Aunt Polly.

  11. My 2013 dissertation was a rhetorical study of the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904—or, more specifically, of how this world’s fair was the vehicle for whipping up, entrenching, and expanding US nationalism. Manifest Destiny was a key, unquestioned concept that shaped the nation—the prevailing ideas of who were were (and are). It remains a key concept today, finally questioned, examined, and learned from by people who are able to look squarely at their own brainwashing and move beyond it with a thorough grounding in our actual history. Those who refuse to do that are championing and fighting for a 19th century (and even earlier, really) view of our place, racially and nationally, in the world. Children aren’t responsible for their own brainwashing, and the folks who put together the 1904 world’s fair in St. Louis really believed what they were purveying. But we know more now. We can educate, rather than brainwash—ourselves as well as our children. It’s really past time those folks stop fighting to uphold brainwashing by denying US history because they don’t like its implications.

  12. How fortunate you must have been, Elaine, to develop a love of history in high school. I remember it as the most deadening of subjects, focused on the memorization of relatively useless facts (e.g., the Battle of Hastings occurred in 1066) and the glorification of the United States of America. Reading Howard Zinn was a revelation and a welcome corrective. So too was my liberal arts education (at a university that recognized that a liberal education should be genuinely liberating—i.e., freeing from the misconceptions, stereotypes, and mythologies that dominate popular culture and social studies curricula). I find it both sad and alarming that so few students today receive such an education (even most “liberal arts colleges” have abandoned liberal education in favour of “pre-professional” programs) and those that do have to wait until they’re 18. The Republicans are right—win the curriculum wars and you ultimately can secure victories in the political wars as well. It’s called ideological hegemony (with kudos to Antonio Gramsci, who deserves as much recognition as Howard Zinn). And it’s what sustains the oligarchy that Todd is always so anxious to remind us about.

  13. When I started teaching in the 60s, the religious zealots were up in arms about the teaching of evolution. I just ignored them and taught it anyway. I think a lot of other science teachers did too. I had to defend myself from a few irate parents but I was willing to do so for the sake of good quality education. I doubt whether today’s teachers of history will be any more intimidated by all the hoopla than I was. All they need is the support of the sane majority. Let them know you’re with them and they will be fine.

  14. Yes there was a lot of memorization but I guess what I saw is how history repeats itself over and over again because at the crux is human nature. We can’t learn from our mistakes if we do not fully understand where we are coming from and the pathways to how we are where we are and so for me history was the study of people.

    I am a human observer it comes to me very naturally. I intrinsically understand people and some of their motivations. My husband, my daughter and friends always comment how strangers come up to me and will tell me things that they will not share w/ others. Its been like this my whole life. As a child adults would talk to me like I was an adult and share things—highly intuitive. So history and its people are what I enjoy and what comes naturally.

  15. Not surprised about the last paragraph. I have volunteered for school board candidates at early voting in Westfield. I was kind of surprised at the question “Do they believe in teaching CRT?” I tried to explain to them that CRT was not being taught at our schools and that CRT is a graduate level course that unfortunately has become a talking point for the extremist groups. It is really sad that really well qualified people are willing to dedicate their time to our schools and then they get misrepresented so horribly. Other questions included: Are they Democrats? Are they Christian? None of which would be criteria for a non-partisan school board member in a public school.

    I started watching PBS Ken Burns Holocaust. It is so much more than just the Holocaust. We have to understand the mistakes we as a country made if we are going to try to not repeat them.

  16. Looks like the election will result in little to no change. The US will still be bogged down in vile, petty onslaughts from the reactionaries. IMHO it is in worse shape than just before the Civil War. I do believe democracy will eventually fall and be replaced by a theocracy financed by the Kochs and like minded billionaires. Trump or DeSantis or someone just as evil will win the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. Will the nominee win the General Election? Your guess is as good as mine. I still believe the US is going to Hell in a hand basket.

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