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.