Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Misusing History in the Classroom

Today's post, as you can guess, is about how history is misused to promote other people's agendas. I used to think, quite naively, that history was about facts. History class, I thought, was about memorizing those facts and then proving on my test that I had memorized them. Wrong, oh so wrong. History is closer to literature than science. It has to be written. It has to be passed on from the perspective of someone else. History isn't pure and indisputable. It's living and active, and controversial. Who knew? You know what else I didn't know? I didn't know that the history I learned in the States was, for the most part, pretty cushy and pro-American. I didn't learn about the uncomfortable periods. Sure we talked about slavery, but it was the south, and not us, and you know, we can focus on the fun stories instead like the few slaves who escaped. Civil rights was much the same. Let's glorify the heroes and sweep the jerks (um, the majority, of us) under the rug. I feel sadly misinformed, to be honest. Recently, I've been doing some thinking about how schools use history to shape students (mainly thanks to Harry's chapter about it). Are schools justified in promoting patriotism, for example, by glorifying past patriots? Of course no one's claiming to do a whole 1984 history change-up, but still, it's meddling by omission. Who you put in the curriculum will vastly change the overall attitude of the student towards the society being studied. Not that I think it should be a completely depressing and somber lineup, but it shouldn't be so gosh darn warm and fuzzy. It's all a bit disturbing, to be honest. I won't go into arguments and details (go read Harry's chapter if you want), but you can see where the problem is.

Okay so I told you that to tell you this. In France, Sarco's doing some history meddling of his own, and it's rather upsetting. I had heard rumors just after his election that he wanted to use history classes "to produce better citizens," but I dismissed it then because I didn't think that was possible. Oh I was wrong; it is possible. And this is how he's started doing it: Guy Moquet. Ever heard that name before this year? I didn't think so. Neither has the typical French student (well, at least not this generation, he was famous for awhile but I think newer generations hadn't heard of him). Anyway, from this year onward they will celebrate the life (and death) of this teenage every October 22. So who was Guy? Well, to be honest, he was pretty cool. He was a teenager that refused to side up with the Nazis, joined the Resistance, and was eventually executed for it. He was only 17 years old when he decided to pay the ultimate price for his convictions, his own life. So what do I have against Guy? Nothing. He's a cool kid, and sure, his story bears repeating in the classroom. The problem is this: Sarco has purposefully given Guy his own day (where his letter will be read and the French Resistance will be discussed) that all schools have to honor because he, admittedly, wants students to emulate Guy's model of good citizenship and patriotism! Yes my friends, Sacro admits to using history to shape impressionable minds into being more patriotic. (Interesting, Guy's communist ties are downplayed.)

Now I can see why Guy's example would be a good example of political dissidence, which can be a very good thing. He was someone who stood up for what he believed in, and kids should know that. But, the problem comes in the glorification of this one story. Sure Guy was cool, and sure you talk about the importance of the Resistance, but what about everyone else? In the newsletter our high school gets there was a huge story about Guy, and then another page with a timeline of important dates for the Resistance. It talked about the Reich, the Jews, and the good French folks... but it left out an important element. There was one sentance about the Vichy government. One. And it pretty much said that it was Petain's fault, and it said that his government (notice, not the French government) collaborated with the Germans. What about everyone else? Yes, a heroic few stood up for humanity, but they are hardly representative of everyone. French students need to learn about Guy, and then also learn about the hundreds of other French men and women who looked the other way. Why should they, because that's what many of us are doing today! You have to learn about history's uglier stories if you really want to produce good citizens. If you lull students into a false sense of righteousness, then they won't be equipped to stand up for justice. Sure we can talk about the heroes, but let's not forget that the villains were one of us too. They weren't demons in disguise, they were regular people like you and me. We are all capable of doing what they've done. We can't turn a blind eye to history's stains, or we'll continue to make the same mistakes.

Okay, I'm climbing down from my soapbox now. Sorry for that. I just don't think it's right, what we do with history. Not only is it bad to purposefully manipulate students, but I don't even think it works the way you want it to. Ignorance doesn't fight for justice, it just keeps things from changing. Though, that may be just what the government wants... Who knows.

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