More Pasts Than One

Eric Foner

Rarely has the study and teaching of history been the subject of such intense public debate as in the United States today. While America’s now-famous ‘culture wars’ originated in disputes over the teaching of literature – the demand that the canon should be expanded to include works by women and non-whites – history has recently taken centre stage. Assaults by structuralists, Post-Modernists and the like had already undermined many of the discipline’s methodological assumptions. American historians, however, like the public at large, are a resolutely non-theoretical lot. No one much cared when Jacques Derrida questioned the epistemological foundations of historical knowledge, or Hayden White insisted that historical narratives are, in large measure, carefully contrived myths. But when Indians spoiled the quincentenary of 1492 by condemning Christopher Columbus as a mass murderer, not only did the popular press cry ‘foul’, but historians had no alternative but to take notice.

Today, it seems, one can scarcely open a newspaper without encountering bitter controversy over the public presentation of the American past. In recent months, the flying of the Confederate flag over public buildings in the South has inspired marches and countermarches; it even became an issue in the Virginia Senate campaign between Oliver North (who favoured the flag) and Charles Robb (who opposed it). A proposed exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum to mark the 50th anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic bomb produced howls of outrage from veterans’ organisations, who charged that initial plans cast the Japanese of the Second World War as innocent victims rather than aggressors. The pressure exerted by these organisations, augmented by the threat of a reduction in Congressional funding, forced the curators to rewrite the exhibition script to highlight Japan’s wartime atrocities and remove documents revealing that in 1945 high military officials had doubted the need for using the bomb.

There has also been controversy over proposed national standards for history education, drawn up with the participation of hundreds of scholars and every major professional association of history teachers. Lynn Cheney, former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, has condemned the plan because, among other things, George Washington is mentioned less frequently than Harriet Tubman, who led groups of slaves to freedom before the Civil War. Ms Cheney seems not to appreciate the difference between a set of curricular guidelines and a textbook. Topics mandated under the new standards, for example, include teaching the military strategy of the War for Independence – a ‘standard’ whose fulfilment would inevitably require attention to Washington’s leadership.

Debates over how history should be taught are hardly new, and hardly confined to the United States. Changes in the present always produce changes in the way the past is conceptualised – witness the rewriting of history now underway in the ex-Soviet Union, or South Africa’s efforts to rid school texts and museum exhibitions of justifications for apartheid. The American debate is reminiscent of the recent dispute in Britain, where defenders of traditional political history complained that new standards included ‘too much Peterloo and not enough Waterloo’. The battle in the United States, however, seems to have achieved a unique level of vituperation and obfuscation. And despite all the talk in popular magazines and instant bestsellers about the educational horrors wrought by politically correct ‘tenured radicals’ who supposedly dominate the universities, the Smithsonian controversy and Ms Cheney’s stance are evidence that attempts to impose a politically-defined view of the past come mostly from the Right.

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