Rewriting history and the pursuit of ignorance

We have recently seen some inspiring and tragic examples of the defense of freedom of speech. The French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo continued to publish last month (and also in 2011) after barbaric attacks supposedly made in the name of Allah. In the U.S., the Sony Corporation ultimately decided to show the film “The Interview” even under threats of brutal retaliation from North Korea. Neither the North Korean nor the Islamist groups were able to limit our abilities to criticize others, express our views or access information.

So why is the United States moving to impose a sanitized and theocratic American history on our children?

We consider our freedom of speech and the press to be sacrosanct. But these same constitutional rights have recently been misused by those trying to misinform our children regarding numerous inconvenient historical truths in service of politics and religion. Freedom to speak our minds is not the same as “freedom to teach.” As a parent, a pediatrician and an educator, I think that school boards and departments of education should be held to a higher standard of “truth telling” than a soapbox orator. Knowingly misrepresenting our history or language constitutes intellectual harassment of our children and it is going on now.

{mosads}Slavery and the subsequent abuses of civil rights of African-Americans would probably top the list of the most embarrassing and inhumane chapters in American history. Government archives contain bills of sale of slaves even after the Emancipation Proclamation. The lynching of black Americans continued well into the second half of the 20th century. These are documented truths, but a surprisingly large population of Americans has elected to whitewash them. In response to demands from official organizations, such as the Texas State Board of Education, textbook companies are rewriting American History. The slave trade is referred to as the “Atlantic Triangular Trade” in an attempt to expunge slavery from our history by focusing on transportation of goods (which happened to include slaves) between countries (i.e., not on the American shores) from the late 16th to early 19th century, and downplay the treatment by white Americans of those people whom they subsequently purchased.

The “new” history of the old America largely exorcises President Thomas Jefferson’s role as a Founding Father in order to diminish the importance of the separation of church and state (as delineated in same First Amendment of our Constitution that guarantees our freedom of speech). Many politicians, including Founding Father John Jay, former Gov. Sarah Palin (R-Alaska) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), have stated that “America is a Christian Nation.” If this dogma is allowed in our schools, how long is it before children are taught that Christians are the Native Americans and that anyone else is a guest in these Christian United States?

This selective editing process has extended into literature via the sanitizing of various books that coincidentally serves the same goal as the revised American history. Words like “nigger” have been removed from classics like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Conservative groups argue that hearing these words makes the teachers and students uncomfortable. It should be uncomfortable! Attempts to eliminate it or gentrify it (e.g., the “N-word”) in its original context are a wasted teaching opportunity. Students and educators should learn to get past their discomfiture and use the warts of America’s past as tools for a less blemished future.

To be sure, the United States does not restrict information and expression in the way that North Korea does. Islamists, Jews, isolationists, Democrats, Republicans, libertarians, etc., can all speak freely — and often without regard for content or accuracy. Our basic freedom of self-expression is legally limited in circumstances necessary to prevent harm to others. For example, Iowa Rep. Steve King (R) was free to say to Newsmax that “For every (undocumented immigrant) who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds. And they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.” However, his freedom of speech could be curtailed if he was speaking in front of a raging mob that was on the verge of storming a business because it employed recently naturalized citizens. Personally, I cannot reconcile the idea that a compassionate divine entity — Yahweh, Jesus Christ, Buddha or Allah — would encourage barbarism and slaughter, rather than education, of nonbelievers, and I can’t see why any U.S. educator or legislator would encourage the rewriting of literature or history to service their own beliefs. Polishing our past to remove the tarnish ultimately shortchanges and thereby harms our students. It is incitement to ignorance and simply should not be allowed.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) recently accused President Obama of being overly critical of our nation and not loving America. America is indeed exceptional and part of what makes it so comes from discussing our problems and then striving to become even greater. Polishing our past to remove the tarnish ultimately shortchanges and thereby harms our students. It is incitement to ignorance and intertia in an ever-changing world and simply should not be allowed.

George Orwell’s 1984 portrays a world in which the past is repeatedly rewritten to best serve the desires of a centralized party. A slogan of this party states, “Who controls the past controls the future, and who controls the present controls the past.” Politically controlled revisionist history in the United States has brought us one step closer to Orwell’s vision via our children. For all of us involved in teaching (whether as faculty, parents or students), let’s preserve the past as it was rather than as we wish it were. Changing it, even in service of some perceived higher societal goal, is ultimately detrimental. To paraphrase the great newsman Walter Cronkite, “that’s the way it was.” Let’s leave it that way and let our children learn and think instead of indoctrinating them with snake oil from an improvised history textbook and turning literary masterpieces into Dick and Jane reading primers.

Rosenbaum is a professor of pediatrics and medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, a practicing pediatrician and a teacher.

Tags 1984 Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Education George Orwell history John McCain Rudy Giuliani Sarah Palin Steve King

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