Recently, the Texas State Board of Education voted to return to the 13th century. The claim of this largely conservative body is that they are bringing “balance” to the public school curriculum. If by “balance” they mean giving equal weight to science and superstition, to fact and to wishful thinking, then yes, they are bringing balance. They say the current text books have a left-wing tilt, an unintended admission that facts are left-wing, or in the words of Stephen Colbert, that “reality has a well-known liberal bias.”
And what do you do when you find the facts unpalatable? You re-write them, wish them away, ignore them, or redefine them out of existence. The Bush Administration successfully engaged these processes for eight years; why shouldn’t the former president’s home state?
Troubling as this is, we should not get ahead of ourselves. This is hardly the first time history has fallen prey to special interests or to extreme nationalist ideology:
• Hitler’s Aryan Jesus is just an extension of the old Christian ideology that takes Jesus out of his Jewish context and makes him more palatable and relatable to Gentiles.
• Nationalist Scandinavian scholars in the 19th century invented the Viking Age. Now we all talk about the Viking Age as if such a thing actually existed. It could just as easily have been the Magyar Age, that nomadic people who terrorized Europe just as thoroughly as the Vikings and at the same point in history.
• And everybody in the Balkans seems to want to lay claim to the heritage of Macedon and Alexander. This would come as a surprise to Alexander himself, for in his day, all anyone heard from the Greeks was that the Macedonians were NOT Greeks, that they were barbarians. They even spoke a different language, as history makes very clear. Don’t try telling that to Greece today. Today, the Macedonians are and always have been Greeks.
• And perhaps most memorably, Marxism has re-written the entirety of history to be a chronicle of class struggle, imposing some very modern concepts on ancient civilizations completely unaware of and untouched by the peculiar and unique circumstances of the industrialized mid-19th century.
History, you see, is a valuable commodity, and not just to those of us who have studied it, and who treasure it as a thing in itself. As more than one historian has noted, the enemy is national mythology, but also popular history.
In both realms we see the influence of pernicious ideology, and not just the commonplace ideologies we all adhere to, but (to use the words of archaeologist William G. Dever) ideology as based on the illusions required to sustain themselves and to order and control society.
History is also a fragile thing; it does not long survive contact with ideologies, be they political or religious. And in the case of Texas, history is assailed by both.
That is not to say that history is correctly portrayed in every textbook in every other part of the country. Far from it. Everyone has a point of view, an agenda, an ideology; true objectivity is impossible. Anyone who has gone on to study history in college understands the various ways in which the historical record has been doctored, not only here in the United States but in other nations.
We all value our national myths, and we all mythologize our heroes, whether it is as innocuous as Washington chopping down a cherry tree or a coon-skin capped Davey Crocket swinging a musket for freedom at the Alamo.
It is a simple fact that people don’t like to have their belief’s challenged. And the situation in Texas epitomizes this contest and puts it in context. Modern Fundamentalist conservatism of the sort that increasingly drives the GOP has found fault with the facts as they are; these facts impinge upon their need for a mythic America, a nation not only founded by Christians but for Christians, a nation whose principles are based on the Bible.
Obviously, historical facts militate against this vision, and the only solution then is to re-write the history books, to produce monstrosities like the “Historically Incorrect Guide to American History,” which make absurd but conservative-friendly claims about America’s past, that enshrine lies in place of fact, that raise myth-making above historiography. What results is not history, but apologia.
Facts ought to count for something. Our interpretation of history, our conclusions, ought to derive not from wishful thinking but from documented and verifiable evidence. An argument based upon false premises counts for nothing.
And when history loses, we all lose. We can find comfort in an invented past but we can’t learn anything from something that has no connection to the journey we have taken as a people. Texas may cherish its memories of the struggle at the Alamo, and of the character of the men who fought there, but however Texas wishes to remember them, we must not permit such parochialism to lift these men and events to the same level as the patriots who fought for America’s independence, and who established our Nation.
The Battle of San Jacinto does not have, and can never have, the stature of Bunker Hill.The surrender of Santa Ana cemented the theft by a few Anglo-Saxons of a predominantly and historically Hispanic Mexican province; the surrender of Cornwallis cemented the independence of long-settled colonies of Europeans from an abusive mother country which shared with them both religion and ethnicity. Texas can fool itself but America and the world must not let themselves be fooled by this nationalistic abuse of the historical record.
If Texas wants to return to the 13th century, I suppose we have to let them. We don’t have much choice, after all. People have a right to be blindingly stupid. But we must not follow them. We must resist the temptation to make history say what we want it to say to support our current political and religious agendas. History is what it is, a record of the past. But it is also the interpretation of that past, and that interpretation should, to the extent it is possible, adhere to one agenda only, that of impartiality, for only then can we learn from our past what we need to know to journey into our future.
True objectivity may be impossible; that does not mean we should not attempt to set aside our blinkers and see the facts for what they are, whether we like them or not.
Historical events, like current events, are ugly; they have warts. That is simply how the world is, an imperfect place guided by imperfect people. Our mistakes have meaning; we cannot wish them away or with 20/20 hindsight pretend they never happened. Scholars and educators, at least, should know better.
Texas, to its shame, by rewriting textbooks, might embrace a mythic America, but that America never existed, and it does not exist, and cannot exist as long as there are people who value our history for what it is, a record not of wishful thinking, but of the past. In the end, what Texas has done does not balance the past; it steals it.