Snail Races

...where even the winners are slow and slimy. It's all a matter of degrees, really. Reality based since 1692.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2005

history for dummies

Slate is kicking off a History Book Blitz, and the first installment by Jon Wiener (Diane Ravitch will join the discussion) caught my eye. As a reenactor, museum volunteer and history enthusiast (and, so defined, it must be said, dork), I have myself been wondering about the use and misuse of historical analogy in this dark, fearful age of the American Republic.

I particularly liked these paragraphs:

Debates about how much American students know about their own history, and about how our citizens should be taught what they don't know, are anything but abstract ones these days. Before we get down to the business of discussing those questions, let me set the current scene. President Bush campaigned in 2004 with the argument that we were fighting in Iraq for freedom and democracy, and that America was on a historic mission. Some opponents expressed skepticism about that, but the president's re-election suggests that a majority of voters accept what historians might call this Wilsonian vision as a justification for war. They did this despite the fact that past wars often turned out differently from what presidents promised at the beginning, despite what we might call the lessons of history.


The first thing that students need to learn about the history of the American ideals of democracy and freedom, in my view, is that democracy and freedom are not fixed, unchanging qualities given us by the founding fathers. The meanings of democracy and freedom have often been debated; our history is the history of those debates, of battles over the way freedom and democracy should be defined—and practiced. And of course some issues are no longer debated—whether slavery is good for Africans, whether women should vote. Still, the debates about those issues—the pro-slavery argument, the argument against women's suffrage—remain a significant part of our past and ought to be part of the curriculum. (Also they can be fascinating: Should women be protected from the "filth" and "degradation" of election campaigns, as a California man argued in 1879?)

I think it is time to re-read Confederates in the Attic. Sometimes commitment to a cause defies obvious rationality; even so, one would think the Red States of the Confederacy might recognize a crazed and desperate rebel insurgency dedicated to an inevitably lost cause when they saw one... sigh...


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