Archive for February 10th, 2011

Heroification, however wrongly placed can still be good?

| February 10, 2011 | 2 Replies
Heroification, however wrongly placed can still be good?

I knew next to nothing about the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars before reading about Rep. Harman’s resignation from Congress to be its next president, CEO and director. But I did learn some things 13 or 14 years ago about Woodrow Wilson, that prompted me to do a little checking. So I wiki’d it, and went to its site:

The mission of the Center is to commemorate the ideals and concerns of Woodrow Wilson by: providing a link between the world of ideas and the world of policy; and fostering research, study, discussion, and collaboration among a full spectrum of individuals concerned with policy and scholarship in national and world affairs.

And…

Woodrow Wilson, nicknamed the “schoolmaster in politics,” is chiefly remembered for his high-minded idealism, which appeared both in his leadership on the faculty and in the presidency of Princeton University, and in his national and world statesmanship during and after World War I.

So what is it about the two freely admitted cherry-picked quotes that bugs me?

I consider James Loewen’s 1995 book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, one of the most important books I have ever read. And I have read a lot. It opened my eyes, took me out of my comfort zone, and inspired a lot more reading in areas I either abandoned or never felt an interest in. (I am left-brained, technically minded, naturally and enhanced skeptical.) For me, history was something you took in school because you had to. I chose other electives in college, because I didn’t have to. And I always had problems with the teachers’ interpretations not agreeing with my own (meaning I didn’t get as many “A”s because I couldn’t break the code of what they wanted me to say.) To me, history, as I felt about psychology – and biology, sociology, philosophy, etc. – history…was too arbitrary. But, we all seem to know the same Trivial Pursuit nuggets that pervade popular history “knowledge”, regardless of whether we liked the subject or not. And there’s a reason.

For those unfamiliar with Loewen’s book, he surveyed the 12 most commonly sold high school American history textbooks, “only to find an embarrassing blend of bland optimism, blind nationalism, and plain misinformation, weighing in at an average of 888 pages and almost five pounds”, uncovering a host of blatant errors, dismal treatment of significant events (an average of three pages on the Battle of Gettysburg, one and a half of which were about Lincoln’s Address), omissions, white-washing, and {well known “News” channel personality}-izing serious lack of scholarship. I understand that most college courses will correct the damage, but how many of us studied college level history? Or if we did, which “facts” stuck with us?

I grew up in a small town in Connecticut. I can’t remember what American history book we had, but given that we were a small school district in a small state, I don’t think we got much say in what the textbook companies sold us. Not unlike the problem the Texas Board of Education decision to rewrite texts visits on the small markets. Nor do I think there was much critical thought put into which books were better than others. I imagine it all came down to the best cost. So I don’t know if my textbook was one of the earlier editions of those Loewen checked, but given the small school, small state conditions it probably was. One of the (minor) reasons we homeschool is that total lack of control students of compulsory schools and their parents have over what is being taught – or not taught.

Loewen does present his findings with bias and editorial. But, he did his research, presents the sources the reader can check, and his points are intuitively obvious to me. More so now than when I first read the book, because on retroflection I think/know he’s right. Writing this, I surveyed some of the comments from the 10% “one star” critics on Amazon and while you can read for yourself the mindset of the naysayers, more than 70% of the 394 reviews posted were favorable.

Now, Woodrow Wilson quick shot news bites that might normally come to mind of the average person are: “he kept us out of war” (until it became obvious that the Central Powers were going to lose, and then we’d better get in and get our piece, thus the Fourteen Points – or was it really submarine attacks?); president of Princeton and the only US President with a Ph.D; a failed League of Nations; had a stroke and maybe his wife ran the government until his term ended; “make the world safe for democracy”; perhaps the Espionage and Sedition Acts, but not likely.

Not covered in the glorifying textbooks of our youth is how Wilson was an outspoken racist (is that the “high-minded” part?) who undid all the desegregation his Republican (remember the times…the Republicans almost liked people back then) predecessors worked to implement, ordering the segregation of white and black federal employees. Not covered is the “world” that he wanted to make safe for democracy only included Europe; under his orders, direction or just on his watch, the US invaded Mexico 11 times, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba and Panama and militarily occupied Nicaragua all eight years and controlled its government, setting the tone for pretty much then on for how we are viewed in Central America (sensing a parallel with a place Middle of East?). Plus we apparently funded and militarily supported the “wrong” side of the Russian revolution. Read the book for the cites, but an excerpt dealing specifically with Wilson can be read here).

I guess it’s obvious now why those quotes bugged me.

Anyway, I learned from reading Loewen to be more critical of things about which I know little or nothing, not just things I am interested in about which I may or may not know nothing. And I resolved to read more history – if only to unlearn what I thought I knew. I like footnotes now, which is why, off-topic, though I enjoy his work, David McCullough frustrates me because he makes statements without reference (bibliographies don’t count) which may be his summation, may be “actual” history, or may be totally off. And who has time to check?

The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars has an interesting Board of Trustees, including the cabinet positions of Secs of State, HHS, and Education, though I’m not sure how active they are. And Wikipedia hasn’t been updated, but it caught my eye that physician and medical fiction author Robin Cook apparently used to be one of the private citizen trustees. The Center has a very broad set of programs that do seem to work toward the ideals they profess, if attributed to one so not a hero. I encourage a tour of their web site. (They even had a lecture in 2005 on “some of the most repressive legislation with respect to free speech” being the work of Woodrow Wilson, so they don’t hide their namesake’s history.)

I can’t help but wonder if Rep. Harman’s strong political positions will adjust the focus of the Center, or if it’s even possible under the charter that she can. Why else would she take the job?

I recommend taking the time to read Loewen’s book. It should spark at least one, “Oh, really?” I also have another by him, almost as fascinating: “Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong”. It’s about those brown signs on the side of the road and how we repaint (or sometimes just paint) the stories the ways we want, facts be damned.

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