Monday, July 13, 2009

On "Real" History

Many Americans have a certain mentality that there is this thing called Real History and that the histories of minorities and women is not a part of it. It's not always that such people claim that these "other" histories are false, although they sometimes claim that. Rather, it's more that these people suggest that the histories of minorities and women are not as important as the Stuff that White Dudes Did. Mainstream history teaches us that the one authentic history is the history as told from the point of view of a select group of elite males. It teaches us that not only is this history the Most Important History, but that it is also the history of all people. Accordingly, when women and minorities make efforts to tell the histories of non-dominant groups, it is argued that Real History is being neglected and that "we" (meaning society) are collectively losing something Very Important.

Conservative James Tanner, who we've seen before here and here, espouses this view in one of his recent crotchety pieces. I point out his argumentation, below, only because it is quite representative of social conservative thought regarding the unimportance and silliness of [insert minority group] Studies programs. He writes:

"In looking at the 'social studies' books it is evident that the selection of topics is highly skewed towards those dealing with minority issues at the expense of mentioning even the most famous of our non-minority prominent people. However, this decline in an understanding of real history is only part of a greater decline in Western Culture and Civilization." [emphasis added]

Tanner, demonstrating that unfortunate social conservative tendency of acting like he's the arbiter of all that is and is not authentic in this world, argues that history that focuses on non-minority groups is "real history" and, worse, that Kids These Days are failing to learn this Real History because of that newfangled idea that the history of minorities and women are important too. Implicit in his argument, of course, is the assumption that other histories, like "those dealing with minority issues," are not, in themselves, "real." It is unfortunate, this tendency. By staking their claim on Real Americana, Real Man, Real Marriage, and Real Religion, adherents of the One Way to Live school of thought succeed mostly in polarizing society and alienating the lives, histories, and narratives of anyone not lucky enough to belong within a dominant identity group.

In her latest book, Living With History/Making Social Change, historian Gerda Lerner reflects upon why she took up the study of history. When asked why she pursued that course of study, she answered:

"Without hesitation, I replied that I wanted to put women into history. No, I corrected myself, not put them into history, because they are already in it.... What I was learning in graduate school did not so much leave out continents and their people... as it left out half the human race, women. I found it impossible to accept such a version of the past as truth" (29-30).

Lerner, who played an integral role in the formation of Women's History, knew on an intellectual level that women had to have been involved in the making of history. I suspect that many people know this. Despite the fact that history is popularly conceived of as the History of Man in the most literal sense, we know that it was a biological and social impossibility for men to have done all of that Very Important evolving, producing, reproducing, and surviving all on their own. We would never know it from reading most history books, teaching us as they do about "real history," but women are already in history. The challenge is to have that truth reflected in this subject that some people call "real history," but which in reality is mostly the history of a select group of men. Doing so, of course, is the point of Women's History, African-American History, LGBT History, Native American History, and every other course that requires an adjective before the word "history."

The history of women, up until very recently, has been a history of educational deprivation that reinforced the idea that women were "innately" intellectually inferior to men. In "real history," it is taken as a given that women did not accomplish much of importance, and definitely not much that was "worth" putting into textbooks. Yet, Lerner observes, "[i]n the short span of forty years, women scholars have challenged the absurd assumption that one half of humankind should perpetually present its own story of the past as being a universally valid story." The point of adjective-History courses is to make history more accurate. As it stands, what passes as the mainstream History of Man is not the history of all people and, as such, cannot be accurate.

For instance, most of us who grew up in the US learned about how "we" won our freedom during the Revolutionary War. Yet, given that after the war, women continued to be denied educational and occupational opportunities and African-Americans continues to be enslaved, some of us are ultimately left wondering how the Revolutionary War really impacted the daily lives and liberties of these non-white male populations. What did freedom mean for women and African-Americans, and how was it different than what it meant for white men? Real History tells us that pursuing that line of inquiry is unimportant and unnecessary, perhaps because it does not involve some Very Important military battle. Yet, studying such things produces a fuller, more robust, account of what happened and, importantly, it does so from another point of view.

So, when James Tanner bemoans "Social Studies" These Days for focusing on minority histories, histories that necessarily include a fuller account of history than what he calls "real history," I wonder how on earth the teaching of a more accurate history is complicit in, as he says, the "decline in Western Culture and Civilization."

If I may, I would suggest that Tanner is really bemoaning the gradual de-centering of a small elite group of males from what is considered to be The Authentic Human Experience. Maybe he just doesn't know how, or believe it wise, to articulate that anxiety.

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