The other day, I was talking to a friend of mine about a political discussion club I was working on forming. “We’ll talk about all the history the government and schools won’t teach us--what we’re supposed to forget,” I said. “Because if we don’t understand what we’ve done, we won’t have the context to understand what’s happening now.”
My friend blinked in surprise. “I never thought about any of it that way.”
Now, for all I mock my school and its severe privilege-bubble-insulation syndrome, this was a friend who is intelligent and decently aware of the world around her, who knows a bit about current events and took a government class with me last year. Yet it had not occurred to her that the history we are taught is insufficient to understand the world, that there are things we are deliberately not told or are misinformed about, and that this gap in knowledge can be dangerous.
We as a nation seem to have a connect-the-dots problem. Any of us can diagnose a dozen problems in the world off the top of our heads, but we fail to see them as links in the same chain, as blowback from similar policies or effects of the same ideology. We do not have an intersectional outlook or grasp of history. Disasters like the rise of ISIS appear to be born and exist in a vacuum, where history is not taken into account. Therefore, the response is based on a short-term, blinders-on view of events, and we end up repeating our old mistakes or making surreally, almost laughably, poor-in-retrospect choices because we seem to have obliterated the context in which we make our decisions and understand their ramifications. In an article for TomDispatch, William Astore quotes a fictional character from the show Homeland to describe the ongoing war in Afghanistan: “So it hasn’t been a 14-year war we’ve been waging, but a one-year war waged 14 times.” This narrow lens belongs not only for the government and military, whose one-track-minded foreign policy--à la refusing to negotiate with other forces at play in Syria until Assad is gone--is driving us down ever less clear or sane paths, but applies as well to the general public. However, our lack of context is not necessarily deliberate.
Because of the way we are taught history, people like my friend don’t have a full scaffold of history to reference when trying to explain the world. Reading Ralph Waldo Emerson in school recently, I was irritated by his assertion that we have nothing to learn from history and should stop looking backwards--not to mention that he encouraged flip-flopping and self-contradiction--but relying on a narrative of history that may contain little pertinent information cannot be a great improvement.
We cannot trace the origins of a problem back through history, because the historical record as we are taught it contains significant gaps. The dominant narratives of history leave as sidenotes events that would provide the context for the present that we so lack. What is emphasized in our school curriculums often has (or seems to have) little relevance to our day-to-day lives, while events like the Vietnam War are rarely covered (yet think how relevant and informative the Vietnam experience could be to our procedures in Iraq and Afghanistan, as we repeat those old mistakes that we’ve somehow remembered as good policy--go in with bravado, get stuck, perpetuate mass brutality, keep staying, keep applying flawed or disastrous solutions, keep hoping if we keep throwing weaponry at the problem, some will stick).
Even when certain aspects of our history are mentioned, they are likely glossed over. The sections on Latin America in my history textbooks may admit that the United States sabotaged or even invaded a country, but fail to mention the economic and political doctrines and atmospheres that propelled that, much less the aftereffects. As Howard Zinn has commented, to skim over pieces of history and dismiss them in a few sentences helps to construct a narrative that gives more weight to the story of the author than their victims. To emphasize the things we are supposed to know--how the US patriots beat the British; how the Union was protected and slavery neatly abolished in the Civil War; how the US saved the day in the World Wars--is to lessen the perceived impact of the things not mentioned--why the American Revolution really took place; how slavery didn’t go quietly; the imperial goals and atrocities of the US in those World Wars (especially the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings). Downplaying certain facets of history--especially the inglorious, the shameful, the failed--allows us to absorb a certain narrative of history that allows current events to appear alien and incomprehensible.
But despite the skewed narrative, we may think we know our history. We may even have a full grasp of what events occurred when, but we can still find ourselves at a loss for their significance today. In the history classes I’ve taken, history is almost always taught as a series of isolated events, occurring in a vacuum. We make cause-and-effect charts for the American and French Revolutions, but it is my observation that almost never are these links extended to the present day--except, notably, in a positive light, such as to emphasize how fantastic our Constitution is and how we can still see evidence of the checks-and-balances system working today.
Another problem with the way history is taught--and I associate this with the historical-events-occurred-in-a-vacuum outlook--is related to the way kids at my school tend to think about politics in general. It’s boring. It’s irrelevant. It’s depressing. History is just another subject to pass, another list of dates and facts and words to swallow and keep down just long enough to pass the test, and then we can forget it. We are practicing “elective amnesia,” as the band Rise Against terms it, deliberately depriving ourselves of the understanding and context with which to parse this complex, volatile world.
Maybe it’s not a connect-the-dots problem we have, after all. It’s that the framework of history in which the government and military tend to connect those dots for us is arranged in such a way that the picture that emerges is what we want to see, not what the dots should really reveal. But we take that image as a given, truth from the powers that be, if we bother with it at all, and so we don’t wonder why the portrait we see looks so skewed and irrational. One could almost call it a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell national mentality.