Is your concept of American history the same as mine? I doubt it. Our versions of history were influenced by the era and regions that we grew up in. This morning I listened to an interview on NPR with Kyle Ward whose new book History in the Making shows how malleable history can be. Ward described how textbook treatments of the Mexican War have changed over the past 150 years from a Biblical battle of races in the 1850s to the modern version as an unpopular war forced by a desperate president. But I don't have to go back a century for evidence--I've witnessed the massaging of history in my own brief time in school. Like most elementary school children, I learned a mythical version of our history--that George Washington had wooden teeth but could never tell a lie--before I began to learn a version of the truth. In 3rd grade I learned that the Civil War was very bad. By 8th grade my teachers explained it was a necessary war to wipe out slavery. In 10th grade the cause became insurtmountable economic conflicts over cotton and tariffs. And in college the crisis was explained (mostly by Lincoln's writings) as a moral crusade to anchor America's reality within the ideals of its founding.
History changes with environment, too. I remember visiting the third grade classroom where my mom taught school in an inner-city neighborhood of Akron, Ohio. Posters on the walls of her classroom showed the familiar images of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Rosa Parks, and George Washington Carver--the same African-American heroes who briefly paraded through the textbooks in my entirely white hometown of Hudson. We didn't have posters of them, of course. But in the Akron classroom there were also posters of Dr. Mae Jaminson, Sojourner Truth, Matthew Henson, Thurgood Marshall, and Ralph Bunche--notable African Americans I had never heard of. This scene played out in reverse in the "inner city to Ivy League" book, A Hope in the Unseen, by Ron Suskind. In the book, a freshman student named Cedric Jennings had recently arrived to Brown University from a poor neighborhood in Washington, DC. As he browsed through the campus bookstore he came across a table covered in books featuring a stern-looking bald man on their covers. Cedric had no idea who this man was, so he picked up one of the books and flipped it open. "'Winston Churchill,' he said to himself. I've got to remember who he is." Suskind, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal, intended that scene as an indictment of the Afro-centric curriculum of Cedric's high school that taught about more about the ancient stone cities of Zimbabwe than who won World War II. Of course manipulating history isn't a conservative or a liberal trait--it's a universal trait of people who are uncomfortable with messy edges that don't align to their liking. Conservatives Lynne Cheney and David Horowitz are as guilty of this offense as shock professors like Ward Churchill and Leonard Jeffries. All of them don't realize that it's the messy edges of history--the shadowlands of motivations and events--that make our past so interesting. Perhaps one day kids won't learn the myth that George Washington wore wooden teeth--unless it's for a lesson designed to scare them into regular brushing.