In the Bible we are told that the first two humans messed everything up by having a snack in the garden. And awhile later things were so crap that there was a flood to wipe everything away except for one big zoo boat. And so on. Most history, real or religious, is taught good and (mostly) bad.
Even in American history we learn, for example, that the King of Great Britain circa 1776 was a jerk who was screwing with the people living in what would become America. Nobody says we can’t teach kids that he was a bad guy. Why? Because we teach kids that the founders, the people who created the nation, did so in reaction to that bad stuff. They learned from the mistakes of the monarch, and the mistakes of the British system and of the Colonial governments, to create a better system.
We don’t spend much time on the Articles of Confederation. They weren’t very good. We should spend more time on them, because they weren’t very good. The new Americans had to go write a new Constitution after only eight years (and three days; ratified 1781, where the Constitution was in 1789). That’s how much they screwed it up the first time.
The bulk of history is one of two stories:
- People learned from mistakes and made something better. Yay!
- People didn’t learn and suffered because of it. Oh no!
Actually, it’s mostly the latter. History is nearly a synonym for mistakes.
When we learn about the racist historical activities, about slavery and Jim Crow, or about sexist historical activities that led to a fight for women’s suffrage, or about dumb economic mistakes, the cycles of depressions leading up to the Great Depression, or the dumb wars of conquest including the World Wars, or the abysmal labor practices that led to the labor rights movement and the civil rights movement, we’re learning as much about the present as the past. We’re learning why things are the way they are. We learn how they changed, why they changed. But we also learn about human nature.
The big lesson of the founding era is about power. It’s about pitting power against power in order to keep any one person or group of people from being able to screw things up too badly. They saw what a tyrannical king could do, and they rejected it in their design. But they also had their own power factions, one of which was the southern states with lots of slaves. Parts of the Constitution were written because of distrust between the new states, including over slavery. (Because, honestly, how much could you trust someone who claims to own another human being?)
Yes, you have to learn about racism. You have to learn how wicked man can be when they ignore the better angels. But that lesson isn’t something like “White people are devils and must be watched,” just like Black people aren’t either. The lesson is that people are apt to do some bad shit, out of stupidity more often than malice, if we don’t watch out. The saying is that “power corrupts.” It’s not “don’t mix power with white guys.” The power does the corrupting.
I mention that because some conservatives seem to want to believe history teaches a racist message. And they say they don’t want to teach it, because they don’t want that message to be learned. I don’t believe that’s what history shows, and I think anyone who concludes that is misreading history.
Sometimes power does non-racially-motivated things. Like ban alcohol for a few years, drunkenly chasing some utopian dream only to find it a drastic failure and quickly reamending the Constitution. Oops. Power is dumb and brutal. We must spread it out among many people, lest we do things completely insane on the regular.
Power wants to protect itself. The various Inquisitions of the churches were all about the power of the church. In modern contexts, things like the Red Scare or the Benghazi inquiries or Donald John Trump trying to get cooked investigations going in Ukraine, we know it to be true that power and the quest to seize or maintain power, are corrupting. These things weren’t racist, but they were still corrupt exercises of power.
But if you don’t teach kids the full and proper history, you end up with some historical rhymes that nobody wants. Like anti-vaccination crap that allows diseases to maim and kill, because people don’t remember and weren’t taught how bad the diseases were. You get generations deprived the vote and decent education and decent jobs, cycles of poverty and misery, if people don’t know that stealing the vote creates power imbalances that coil themselves around the throat of society and squeeze. Like businesses that get away with moving jobs around like Three-card Monte, to prevent workers from having decent working conditions. We teach labor history so that people will know they have a right to decent working conditions. Like climate change causing massive ecological destruction and social strife, if a bunch of executives never learned environmental history like Love Canal and the Ozone Hole.
And kids need to know why we have three branches of government, not just have this weird phrase “checks and balances” echo in their head, but actually demonstrate it, understand that if the checks and balances get unbalanced, if one scoundrel seizes enough power, it’s a bad time.
The Republicans and others who run away from history, like all those idiots in the past did, will find it ends badly. The world will suffer for their cowardice. And we’ll write all about it in the next edition.