The Killing (and Queering) of History: Why Government Schools are the Problem
This past week the governor of California signed a law that requires the teaching of gay history in textbooks used in government schools. That’s bad, but not for the reasons so-called “conservative” groups imagine.
Government schools in California and Texas determine what is used in textbooks nationwide. The textbook boards in California lean toward fashionable “lifestyle liberalism” and Texas leans right toward “traditional values.” The result of this politicization of content? The killing of history as a subject that is alive with controversy and where the “good guys” and “bad guys” can’t be reduced to cartoon characters. This latest move is just the latest of Left and Right battering history in government schools until it is a tasteless pulp lacking any flavor, punch, passion or debate. Instead, it is a limp noodle of sympathetic characters and noncontroversial “bad guys” demanded by innumerable pressure groups.
The immediate reaction is to say “why shouldn’t they teach about homosexuals in history?” Indeed. Ever since I started teaching at The Ohio State University, I included a discussion of gays and lesbians in a lecture on the Long Sexual Revolution. But prescribing what I must teach and how I must teach it keeps me from saying things like “Alfred Kinsey’s reports shocked America with their high counts of extramarital sex and homosexuality [sounds good to us ‘moderns’] but, I note, Kinsey was a pervert even by our standards—he demanded his students swap wives, he circumcised himself to note any difference in sexual feeling, and he practiced erotic asphyxiation. Moreover, his ‘science’ was unrepresentative because he relied on prison populations and prostitutes—hardly a cross-section of America in the late 1940s and 1950s.”
You see, that complicated part would have to be reduced to something that was “teaching tolerance” (see above story) and “teach students to be more accepting of gays and lesbians.”
The first rule of Political Correctness (Left or Right) is to know what will make your “diverse” audience feel affirmed, accepted and so on. Try to teach yourself out of that box. And you can never be PC enough: I still recall a GLB (Gay Lesbian Bisexual) student activist complaining that I had noted gays made up 10% of the population (actually, Kinsey claimed they did) and I did not give them 10% of a survey on U.S. history! (Campus groups have created “10 Percent Societies” and even Facebook groups. Example; see this link)
But how did we get to the point of prescribing that gay history be taught (yes), the Holocaust (yes), Irish potato famine (yes), Creationism (maybe), etc. At least in the case of gay history, one might imagine that teachers know little about the subject and have to be forced to teach that part of history. Too bad college history majors now lack the teaching of legal, economic, constitutional and military history. History is the New Sociology: all social-cultural, all the time. This is only a slight exaggeration in terms of specialties—check the job ads or Directory of History Departments in the United States and Canada. You will find professors listed as specialists in those fields with the title emeritus after their name (retired)!
So, Texas textbook board can scrub extended discussion of evolution, California can have gays included. Any one familiar with the textbook market knows that those two states’ approval process determines what is included in the high school textbooks of major publishers. For a detailed account of how language and history get destroyed in the process, read Diane Rivatch’s The Language Police (2003). Yale Review of Books has this to say about Ravitch’s study of textbooks:
The chapters on literature and history, entitled “Literature: Forgetting the Tradition” and “History: The Endless Battle,” are the only ones besides the impassioned final pages in which we can find any hint of a solution. In a book about what children can’t and don’t read, the strongest sections are certainly those on what children should read. It is in departing from her catalogue of the sins of Christian fundamentalists, feminist language butchers, and timid publishers that Ravitch finds the voice to say exactly what curricula are missing and why this is a problem. The lack of any content whatsoever, real or imagined, bleeds children’s imagination, and destroys their ability to encounter anything beyond their direct realm of experience (momentarily ignoring the powerful inputs of popular media). Ironically, in trying to expose children to nothing but ideal conditions, educators have probably eliminated their ability to move toward that ideal by failing to develop the skills that allow them to encounter and understand “the other.”
Succinctly, [Ravitch] says, echoing Thucydides, “by expurgating literature, we teach [schoolchildren] that words are meaningless and fungible.”
There is no discussion of religion in the textbooks reviewed by Ravitch but sometimes the politically-approved groups use a church building as a civic center where nothing actually religious occurs! I wish I were making this up but the Language Police are always one step ahead of my non-transgender brain.
To students entering college (or not), History is just “one damn thing after another.” Nothing more and often much less. Funny how Hollywood see history as a “grab bag of good stories” to tell (think how many epics history has handed Hollywood) but students don’t even get that satisfaction K-12.
But why read when you can learn many of these lifestyle-embracing choices by simply watching this 2 minute “Museum of Tolerance” clip from South Park.
Disclosure: my campus, like most others, actually does have an annual “Tunnel of Oppression” like the one in South Park. College certainly is a learning experience!
For more reading, see:
Richard Vedder, Can Teachers Own Their Own Schools? (2000)
James Tooley’s The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey into How the World’s Poorest People are Educating Themselves
(2010)—an inspiring account of how poor people are “doing it for themselves” by opting out of government schools that are mere “attendance centers.”
Laurence Vance, “Gerrit Smith: A Radical Nineteenth-Century Libertarian,” The Independent Review (2009): Smith was an abolitionist and nineteenth century liberal who warned that government schooling would teach to the lowest common denominator and destroy the soul of educating the mind and the spirit. He thought that religion was equally as important as the other content and character forming courses. However, history had shown that government could not be trusted with religion, and we know it can’t be trusted with just about any other subject. While education reformers dither with futile reforms, Smith urged abolition not just of slavery but of government schools. That’s a radical notion but one that some of us have actually practiced by opting out of The System.
[NOTE ON TERMINOLOGY: “Queer” is now a respectable term and “queer studies” is an academic discipline taught at many universities. Proponents “search for queer figures and trends in history that queer studies scholars view as having been ignored and excluded from the canon.” In other words, they have joined the many other groups seeking sympathetic representation in K-12 textbooks]