Wednesday, September 24, 2014

History is not what you were taught in school

News Item: Hundreds of students walked out of classrooms around suburban Denver on Tuesday (9/23/2014) in protest over a conservative-led school board proposal to focus history education on topics that promote citizenship, patriotism and respect for authority, in a show of civil disobedience that the new standards would aim to downplay. The proposal from Julie Williams, part of the board's conservative majority, has not been voted on and was put on hold last week. 
Huffington Post Sept. 24, 2014

An open letter to Julie Williams of the Jefferson County School Board:

Dear Julie,

It appears that you are in need of a reality-based lesson in U.S. history. Having studied that history in every learning environment from grade school to graduate school, I offer this thumbnail sketch:

In the 15th and 16th centuries wealthy and powerful European kings wanted to increase both their wealth and power and so used conquest cloaked in religion to colonize newly-discovered land in what is now the Americas. Their agents established settlements and colonies in the Americas, exploiting the natural resources to send wealth back to Europe. After a time the colonists got tired of paying taxes to the European kings, or decided they wanted to be rulers themselves, or a combination of these, and they began separating from the European kingdoms. Some of the separations were bloody revolutions in which thousands of peasant farmers were persuaded to die for the wealthy landowners, thus securing independence. 

Once independent, the new American nations relied on slave labor to build their economies and on the eradication or violent subjugation of native peoples to gain access to the natural resources. This wasn’t just an American phenomenon, by the way; Europeans colonized great swaths of Africa, Australia, and Asia with the same practices, again often wrapped in the thin cloth of religion.

By the middle of the 19th century some Americans with consciences began to gain some power in the United States and at least ended slavery, although it took the deaths of hundreds of thousands more peasant farmers and urban poor to achieve this. The genocide against native people continued unabated until nearly the 20th century.

Having gained complete control of the continent, the European Americans finally began to build what would become the most powerful and wealthiest nation/state in history. Society in America, as everywhere else in the world, was composed of a few very wealthy people earning most of the money and owning almost everything and the vast majority of people earning and owning comparatively very little.

This process of building the United States of America required the destruction of hundreds of thousands of families and resulted in the needless deaths of hundreds of thousands of peaceful people through violence, starvation, and neglect.

The old European empires, finally stripped of most of their colonial assets, began to exhaust themselves, first in a grinding, muddy, nasty war and then in a worldwide conflagration. The process, which took up nearly half of the 20th century, was the bloodiest time in world history. Mechanization allowed the generals to magnify the horror of war almost beyond comprehension. The United States, using its indomitable wealth and power, emerged from this period the unchallenged world power, a position it enjoys to this day.

In our popular culture, this is all covered with a veneer of idealistic concepts like liberty, equality, and independence and infused with religious justification in order to persuade the vast working class to provide even greater wealth to the wealthiest few. The veneer is often painted in bright patriotic colors.

Unfortunately, Julie, the rest of the world has the ability most Americans lack; they can see beneath the veneer to the reality underneath. We are no better, and certainly no worse, than any other empire that has come before us. But we are far from being John Winthrop’s imagined “city upon a hill.” The only thing truly exceptional about us is the mythology of American Exceptionalism.

Only by teaching our children the real history of the United States can we begin to mold future citizens into people with consciences who will make sure that the horrors of our own history never occur again.