Several years ago, I had the opportunity to spend five days with Fritz Fischer at a Gilder Lehrman Summer Seminar. It was awesome. Fritz has been involved in history / social studies issues at the national level for years. He helped write the Colorado state social studies standards and now he’s come out with a great book titled The Memory Hole: The US History Curriculum Under Siege. It’s basically Fritz saving the world. Trust me on this.
The basic premise?
I am afraid that the discipline of social studies is being hijacked.
He calls them anti-historians. Working to insert their own sanitized versions of past events, they misunderstand the purpose of history, and are afraid of the process of history. He suggests that we are moving towards a 1984 Orwellian reality that “reinscribes” events “exactly as often is necessary.” That lives by the phrase “who controls the past controls the future.”
He suggests that
the past is disappearing because many people don’t care about the past but do care about creating a past that supports their view of the present.
The way to prevent this sort of Orwellian possibility is to do a better job of training students to think historically. He suggests that
There are no right answers in history but there is a right way to find the answers.
Fritz shares a story about a painting depicting George Washington praying at Valley Forge. This probably never happened, with little evidence existing that it did. But the “anti-historians” try and present this picture as proof that we shouldn’t have separation of church and state, that Washington was a deeply religious man. (In fact, Fritz argues, Washington was the sort of person would leave his church before communion was passed.) Fritz has a problem with this, mostly because they are trying to do this in our classrooms.
Anti-historians, like Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter, are working to change the past by re-writing “reinscribing” people and events.
He again quotes Orwell:
People simply disappeared.
He says similar things are happening with words in our history. Anti-historians are working to eliminate words like “robber barons” and “capitalism” from social studies and economics. Not “robber barons” but “self-made entrepreneurs.” Not “capitalism” but “free enterprise.”
“Imperialism” is another word that is being eliminated from the curriculum, specifically in places like Texas. Imperialism is okay as long as it is connected with other countries. But not with the US. The word is central to the debate at the time. How can we teach that period without using words from the time? Do we ignore the many political cartoons and quotes like “little brown brothers?”
Anti-historians would rather teachers use the word “expansionism.”
Fritz also discussed the 1950s and McCarthyism. This is obviously a period of history that we and our students need to be talking about. But anti-historians are claiming that McCarthy was great for America, that he protected traditional American values and kept them alive during the 1950s. They do this by citing documents out of context such as the Venona documents.
But Fritz suggests that anti-historians are not just a right wing problem. He argues that Howard Zinn is also an anti-historian . . . well, perhaps his followers. For example, when they suggest that Christopher Columbus is a “wanted” criminal. Our students do need to explore Columbus and other explorers but the research needs to be done in context without the radical bias that developed during the 1960s and 70s.
He says our job is not to give kids stuff from the right and the left, hoping that they come out somewhere in the middle. He calls this cable news teaching – bringing a right wing and a left wing wacko on the set and let them go at it, hoping that the moderator will somehow find some sort of center.
It’s an interesting argument. And Fritz is preaching to choir here. I agree with everything he is saying but I do think things may be shifting a bit. The social studies world is swinging back towards research-based best practices, encouraging historical thinking.
But buy the book anyway. Because it’s that important. Teaching our kids to ask great questions, think critically, and solve problems will save the world. And The Memory Hole is gonna provide the research and support for doing what we know is good for kids.
It was a great way to end the day.