A look at views of how American history is taught from within the academy differs radically from the perspective that you get from so-called outsiders and helps to show why the latter make more reliable historians than the former. “Although U.S. students are typically taught a sanitized version of history in which the inherent superiority and benevolence of the United States is rarely challenged, the social and political changes unleashed in the 1960s have opened up some space for a more honest accounting of our past,” University of Texas Journalism Professor Robert Jensen writes. “But even these few small steps taken by some teachers toward collective critical self-reflection are too much for many Americans to bear.”
Jensen is particularly bent out of shape about a bill that the Florida legislature passed this year. “So, as part of an education bill signed into law by Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida has declared that ‘American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed,’” Jensen writes. “That factual history, the law states, shall be viewed as ‘knowable, teachable and testable.’”
“Florida’s lawmakers are not only prescribing a specific view of U.S. history that must be taught (my favorite among the specific commands in the law is the one about instructing students on ‘the nature and importance of free enterprise to the United States economy’), but are trying to legislate out of existence any ideas to the contrary.” It should be remembered that Jensen is an academic so left-wing that he thought that Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 was a right-wing movie.
In his time at a Catholic school in New England, C. A. Baylor did not notice a shortage of “critical self-reflection,” particularly when he got to bond with his department chair and she gave him advice on how to handle his students. “She said that I should have them learn by discussing the material without teacher ‘orchestration’ or provision of information,” he writes in The New Individualist. The New Individualist is published by the Objectivist Center.
“In other words, she wanted only uninformed bull sessions,” he surmised. “Indeed, in her own class, students said things such as, ‘There was no draft in World War II, because soldiers thought it was a good cause,’ and ‘Fifty percent of the Union Army was African-American’—all without being corrected publicly or privately, apparently on the theory that correcting them would be inhibiting.”
“Several generations have been raising several generations of supposedly educated young Americans who are, by and large, historically illiterate,” Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian David McCullough said in a speech at the Hoover Institution. The Hoover Institution is at but not of Stanford.
McCullough makes the rounds on the college lecture circuit between books, such as his recent bestseller 1776, so he knows whereof he speaks. “Even those who stayed with the army, who followed Washington through hell, had times of enormous doubt and misgivings about the whole affair—including Washington,” McCullough says of the Revolutionary War that he chronicled in 1776. “As students of history, though, he and the others believed they had been cast by history or the hand of God or fate or providence on one of the great historic dramas of all time.”
“Therefore they individually must play their parts as best they possibly could, giving it everything they had, because they, in turn would one day be judged by history. So, a sense of history isn’t just understanding what went before we appeared on the scene; it’s understanding that we are a part of history and that we will be judged in time to come by how well we played our parts.”
The septuagenarian author of best-selling biographies of Harry S. Truman and John Adams has become something of a one-man-historical archive, and a national treasure himself.
Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.