Were I to accept what I heard in history class at school recently, I would believe that the US once flirted with imperialism and then rejected it like a scandalized schoolgirl, scurrying back to isolationism, which eventually gave way to our reluctant role as a global sheriff. Sounds nice. But this reluctant-and-benign-superpower narrative is useless, unfortunately, for understanding current events and the evolution and effects of US foreign policy. And the redacted version of history we learn in school is, I believe, not just inaccurate but a dangerous symptom of greater underlying problems in the US educational system.
History--perhaps the most crucial subject we can learn--is taught in a vacuum relative to the present day, seemingly comprised of a string of surprising and unrelated incidents without terribly long-range causes or effects. Historical events are treated as inevitabilities, as though whatever mysterious forces propelled governments’ policies were inexorable and nonnegotiable, as if there were no other course to have taken. This attitude lends itself easily to the defeatist idea that working to change current policies and repair the damage of past ones is also futile. And in a world where the youth must be the rising tide that forces change on inertia-bound governments, this strange narrative of history as something separate from the world we live in now is especially toxic.
The problem at hand in my history class goes far beyond that one teacher. When history is taught as if it were suspended in formaldehyde, with no connection to the present or future, it is less a product of teachers’ personal ignorance or bias than their unchallenged allegiance to our dehumanizing and dysfunctional so-called educational system.
According to Brazilian educational reformer Paolo Freire, much modern schooling is predicated on a theory of education that takes students and “turns them into ‘containers,’ into ‘receptacles’ to be ‘filled’ by the teacher.” Freire elaborates, “The more completely she fills the receptacles, the better a teacher she is. The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are.” This method of education as “an act of depositing” makes reality “motionless, static, compartmentalized, and predictable”--thus rendering it impossible to teach history with nuance or context. A string of compartmentalized facts and diluted truths does not, of course, equate to knowledge.
This is deliberate. Keeping education--if we take education to mean the process of cultivating mature, independent, and thoughtful adults--to a minimum serves the interests of creating a mass labor force for the corporatist economy. As writer and reformer John Taylor Gatto puts it, our schools are “laboratories of experimentation on young minds, drill centers for the habits and attitudes that corporate society demands.” Those habits and attitudes are reinforced by the incomplete and contextless narratives of history that we are taught, in which the teachers must deposit in their students, their receptacles, a shaky and amnesiac story of our past.
I believe that the way we are taught history, above all other subjects, deeply affects how we process the present. A society that has been trained not to question is a dangerous thing, and since both history and the present are narrated by those with the power and the airwaves, the fallout from decades of oppression and deliberately maintained inequality remains out of sight and out of mind. If injustice seems inevitable and every event occurs stripped of context, it becomes all the easier to twist our already skewed narratives to uphold bigotry and promote deadly policies, around issues from racism to sexism to Islamophobia to war to terrorism.
To combat these things, we must combat our educational system. We must refuse to be “receptacles.” We need to question every “deposit.” Do our own research on the topics covered in school, and perhaps especially on the ones that schools ignore. Remember and seek out the stories of people our whitewashed history classes would rather forget. To keep our minds open and sharp requires vigilance. Wherever we go, there are always conversations to have, always points to make, always ideas to question, always awareness to bring. Every moment is teachable. Every choice you make affects the story that you tell and that is told about you.
Stories have power, because our actions are informed by the stories we use to interpret the world. And, to throw in a quote from the punk rock band Rise Against, “you can’t understand what lies ahead if you don’t understand the past.” But what a critical analysis of the entire educational system reveals is that this amnesia or lack of understanding is not usually an accident or a choice: it is a deliberate policy, and it is a dangerous one.
It's always struck me as ironic that despite every war-hawk battle cry that urges us to remember a time we were wronged, from “Remember the Maine” to “Remember Pearl Harbor,” we are so memory-challenged when it comes to remembering the wrongs we've inflicted on others, and understanding how they might be coming back to bite us--and they are. Our “current issues” are always worsening reprises of mistakes we’ve made before and volatile situations that we only seem to exacerbate. The forces that benefit from the status quo benefit too from a school system that reinforces the mandate not to question our governments, our policies, our wars, our history. But ordinary people, when they reap the blowback of US actions, will not benefit. To protect ourselves and liberate our society from the wrongs we still perpetuate against each other, we must first liberate our minds from the methods of thinking (or lack of it) that we have been expressly programmed with.
Freire, Paolo, "The Banking Concept of Education." http://www.pitt.edu/~writecen/BankingConcept.pdf
Gatto, John Taylor, "Against School." http://www.wesjones.com/gatto1.htm