Take the Story out of History

My daughter recently shared a Schoolhouse Rock video with us that their class watched in school. I vaguely remember it from growing up but it's hardly "I'm Just a Bill" or "Three Is the Magic Number," so chances are you aren't immediately humming this thing just by seeing the title. Let's refresh our memories.

Before we get into it, let me qualify that my daughter's teacher is smart and woke and all the things a good Californian lefty like myself could ask for. When I was young I went to a very white school in a very white city with very white teachers and learned a very neat and tidy history in which bad things happened a long time ago and were defeated by the forces of goodness with no lingering effects, creating the strong and powerful and well-adjusted United States we should thank God that we get to live in today. By contrast, my kids go to a very diverse school where they are learning about systemic injustice and disenfranchisement and other things conservatives do not believe in. So my daughter's teacher does a great job, but she's also a public school teacher, bound by very prescriptive state & national standards about what information children should learn at what age. And when it comes to history, "information" is a very malleable term. Who determines the official story? Whose stories get told? How do you determine what kids need to know when our understanding of the past changes based on where we are in the present?

This week, my daughter's class is learning about the founding of the U.S., which is where the video comes in. Look, I'm not a historian. I'm not about to reveal the true story of the Mayflower to you. But right off the bat, you'll notice a pretty important perspective missing from this video; namely, these guys:

I recognize this is one of the problems with history in general. Perspective is everything; a story of triumph and overcoming odds on one side can be a story of defeat and ruin on another. And sure, the makers of Schoolhouse Rock don't have the time to include every imaginable perspective in their 2 1/2 minute song. But then why do we have the song at all? What's the purpose of this thing?

I will answer my own question: the purpose is propaganda. It's a catchy song and adorable cartoon with a political agenda. The creators might not even know they have a political agenda, but the story they're telling most definitely does. The story here is about a group of persecuted people who escaped to a land where they could live how they wanted. But ... how about the people who were already there? How do they fit into this freedom narrative? In this video they're irrelevant; they're like the flora and fauna in a world that "may not look like home." Just a bunch of suspicious sally savages who immediately disappear from the story and don't come back.

While we're here, let's take a look at the year on that rock. 1620 — very close to another year we've been talking a lot about lately.

The 1619 Project commemorates the arrival of the first slaves in Virginia. Virginia was founded in 1607. (I looked it up.) But in "No More Kings'" narrative — and in my head, having been the product of American schools — the first major event in American history was the pilgrims landing in 1620, which actually happened a year after the first slaves arrived and a full 13 years after Jamestown was established. Why do so many of us believe the story of America begins with the pilgrims? Because of propaganda just like this, which a lot of us saw growing up. And that propaganda has a purpose: to reinforce the idea of America as a haven for freedom-seekers, and not (as the actual timeline suggests) a haven for those seeking wealth at the EXPENSE of others' freedom.

After that, the song (and my understanding of history) jumps ahead to the Boston Tea Party in 1773. What happened in that 153 year interim? Not much, according to the song. They mostly built houses. Did freedom-type things. Until England tried to exert too much authority, at which point the colonists dumped a bunch of tea in the harbor, rose up, and started their own country with just laws. For white men. And, to a lesser degree, their wives.

Okay, you might ask, so maybe it's not perfectly historically accurate, but what's wrong with putting an ideal like "freedom" at the center of our national identity? What obligation does an education-lite product like Schoolhouse Rock have to tell the messy parts of the story? Is there no value in instilling in kids a national identity that makes them proud of their country?

I guess my question in response to that is: to what end are we doing this? Why teach kids a bunch of stories that they'll just eventually have to unlearn? Is it because we're afraid they won't love their country if they learn the truth? Force feeding children simplistic narratives out of fear that the truth is too troubling does not scream "freedom" to me. Last week, Mississippi passed a law banning teachers from teaching critical race theory which, A) no one does below the college level, and B) is basically the antithesis of how a free society is supposed to operate.

How many people will go to their graves believing in the Schoolhouse Rock version of history? Watching this video, I can understand why people get so angry about the 1619 Project: it completely upends everything they've been taught. For me, liberal arts grad, People's History reader, I've been fortunate enough to learn over the years that much of my education was propaganda. But an awful lot of people in this country have never known anything else, and they see any attempt to broaden the lens on history as a personal attack, or worse yet, an attempt to replace the truth with a lie. But the thing about history is that there just isn't a single truth. By treating history a series of definitive stories with clear morals, schools have trained us to oversimplify. So when something like the 1619 Project or CRT (or, in a slightly different way, common core a few years ago) comes along, it rips the ground out from underneath people. It challenges their perception of what they know to be true and requires them to make judgments. And looking at the batshit crazy things people believe in this country, I would not say "judgment" is one of our stronger suits.

In the advertising world, we put "storytelling" at a premium. If you want someone to buy your product or believe in your brand, you have to tell a story that will get them to accept your framework. Coke is refreshing (it's not), Nikes will improve your performance (they won't). This is how schools have traditionally approached American history: the framework being that we are a nation founded on progressive ideals, always striving to become a "more perfect union." Take a look around the country today and it becomes pretty clear this is not actually how our government operates. And it never has, regardless of what Schoolhouse Rock tells you.


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In the Year 2022

It is the year 2022, and they weren't kidding when they said this was the future. I presume you're reading this from one of the years that came before this one, in which case, I gotta say, just you wait. There is some real future coming at you in the year 2022.

One of my goals for this year is to do more creative writing. As a dad who makes a living writing & creative directing, my personal creative output has taken a backseat to my professional creative output and the endless amount of work one has to do to maintain one's life. In 2022, we're going to try to shift our focus.

And so here we are with a shiny new blog where I can post my thoughts and/or prayers. I recognize starting a blog does not seem to be the most futuristic thing to be doing in 2022 ... I should probably be starting an augmented reality chat room or something ... but I always enjoyed having a forum where I could dash off some daily musings in the past and with the incredible sucktitude of Facebook this seems as good a place as any.

So here we are, welcome, and thanks for reading. Let's get this show on the road. Viva the future!


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