As someone who studied to become a historian, one of the most frustrating things to watch unfold is the ongoing debate over textbook content that is happening now in Texas. School boards have opted to revise criteria in favor of modern political happenings, injecting their own preferences to combat the ‘liberal version’ of history as it has been playing out. The political as to how this will impact education aside, this seems to me to be a dangerous shift in how we will educate our younger generations.
In college, I studied both history and geology, and came away with a dominant feeling for context. While exploring vastly different subjects, both the study of prior human events and of geological happenings are linked by a couple of very basic things: they’re about actions, and how those actions affect other things down the line. Listening to the radio this afternoon, Vermont Edition talked about a recent landslide that consumed a home in Canada, and geologists on the show noted that there is a direct correlation between what happened over ten thousand years ago and today. Actions have a tendency, in both nature and human history, to have both short term and long term effects. Thus, the context of whatever one is studying is just as important as the individual figures and events that make up the present day.
History is the interpretation of the past. When I’ve talked about my degree, an M.A. in Military History, I usually have to preface that with an explanation that I’m not an expert in the specifics of World War II, Vietnam, the Napoleonic Era or the American Civil War. This was a degree that was designed to teach someone how to think like a historian, how to research like a historian and how to put together an argument, backed up with evidence like a historian – I can confidently say that I can talk about any number of military concepts, battles and figures, but more importantly, I know how to research those things, but also understand how to examine them within the context of history.
The founder of my alma mater, Alden Partridge, conceived of the school at a time when practical achievements were just as important as the theory behind the words, and as such, sought to educate the first Norwich University cadets in ways that encouraged them to see their teachings in practice, but also to formulate their own thinking based on what they saw when they were seeing. Where Partridge looked to more practical studies, such as Engineering, the same line of thinking applies to the social sciences field, which is where the worry about the Texas Board of Education comes into play.
History is not a static field, but one that is constantly growing and changing as different minds enter the field. Nor is history the study of the past: history is the examination of the past, and the interpretation of events as they happened. Thus, removing important figures such as Thomas Jefferson from mention as a founding father based on some of the things that he pushed eliminates the change to examine some of the context, and arguments, that have helped to shape the present. While teaching any sort of correct form of what happened in the past is far more preferable than teaching something that is ultimately incorrect, the problems surrounding the study of the past in this instance isn’t about correcting past mistakes, it’s about re-framing the past with a modern mindset, and patently ignoring the context of past events to suit modern political thought.
Removing elements of the past is harmful in a number of ways, going far beyond the individual figures: it not only impacts a student’s understanding as to what events happened, but why they happened. Removing Thomas Jefferson as a figure who had pushed for the separation of church and State leaves a void in the understanding for a student as to why the founders placed such a restriction within the constitution. Rewriting history in this manner will thus leave a flawed understanding of the past, which in turn impacts how we view and act in the present.
While that, in and of itself is frightening, what bothers me far more is that a trend towards intellectual backwater and restriction on thought has grown. Often, there are arguments against spending on scientific endeavors, because a practical use or result might not result, or someone cannot think of how any such argument or study can be useful. However, the progress of science and thinking cannot be directed, channeled or moved for convenient thinking: science and learning will ultimately find what it will find: oftentimes, the results and findings exist, but only through searching, will answers be found. The same applies to education, and restricting what people learn simply for the sake of political convenience is short-sighted, ignorant and downright offensive to anybody who wants to see this country grow intellectually, politically and economically in the future.