Sunday, October 16, 2011

"The American Republic" by Richard Hofstadter

I thought this was an interesting article about The American Republic, the American history textbook by Richard Hofstadter, Daniel Aaron, and William Miller, first published in 1959.

Check out this excerpt, for example:
My American history text in high school had been Hofstadter’s biggest competitor, The American Pageant, by a Stanford University professor, Thomas Bailey. "Old American flag Bailey," as some called him, rarely liked to admit to anything truly unpleasant in American history, and often resorted to whitewashing patriotism to paper things over. Pageant was meant to be “feel good history” — the kind that even today is popular with the public. What is amazing then and now about Hofstadter is that he was critical and yet popular at the same time. A passage from the 1966 edition of Bailey’s Pageant on Columbus highlights the profound differences between these books:

Christopher Columbus, a skilled Italian seaman, now stepped upon the stage of history. A man of vision, energy, resourcefulness, and courage…. Success finally rewarded the persistence of Columbus…. A new world thus swam within the vision of civilized man.

Bailey sums up that the "discovery" of America was a "sensational achievement, "but states that "The American continents were slow to yield their virginity."

Hofstadter’s approach with his co-authors was poles apart:

When we say, “Columbus discovered America,” we mean only that his voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492 first opened the New World to permanent occupation by people from Europe [….] When Ferdinand and Isabella succeeded at last, in January 1492, in expelling Islam from Granada, they moved immediately to wipe out all other non-Catholic elements in the Spanish population, including the Jews who had helped immensely in financing the long wars. The rulers’ instrument was the Spanish Inquisition: its penalties, execution or expulsion. Driven thus to dissolve in blood and misery the source of their wealth and power at home, Ferdinand and Isabella were now prepared to view more favorably Columbus’s project…. [T]he same tide that carried Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria so hopefully toward such golden isles … also bore the last of some hundreds of thousands of Spanish Jews toward Italy and other hostile refuges.

Today "permanent occupation" probably won’t raise many eyebrows, but at the time that — as well as the larger context of religious persecution for the voyage — was a paradigm shift for an American history textbook. In fact, Republic’s one-word assessment was that European contact was, for native populations, "catastrophic."

These days, right-wing politicians seem determined to bring back that "feel good history." Texas, in particular, has been working to bowdlerize textbooks (not just history textbooks), and that state is such a huge market for publishers that those preferences have widespread repercussions.

Apparently, right-wingers think that we Americans won't love our country if we learn the truth about it. I always thought that was a bizarre idea. Indeed, the fact that we've come so far has always seemed inspiring to me. And don't we want to know of the mistakes of the past so we don't commit them again?

I'm at least as patriotic as any of those loud-mouthed, ostentatious Tea Party "patriots," and I love my country despite its flaws. I don't think children need to be brainwashed with lies - or with the daily repetition of the Pledge of Allegiance, for that matter. To me, that always seemed like a,... a Communist thing to do, I guess, not something a free nation would need to indulge in.

Teach children our real history, warts and all, the good and the bad. Show them that we made mistakes in the past, but we've improved since then. Heck, show them that we still make mistakes. We're human. We're not perfect. So what? Maybe when they grow up, they can do better.

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