It is embarrassing to open a sentence with, “I was taught”. I like to think of myself as a free-thinker even in my developmental years, but a headline in today’s news triggered the phrase, and I just can’t shake it.
With the commemorations last fall of the 100th Anniversary of WWI Armistice, many learned historians and pundits have chimed in with fresh looks at “what we were taught” (sometimes known as revisionist history) which challenge long-held beliefs. On this particular subject my formal education included little more than a paragraph-length summary to the effect that some Duke from a moldering empire was assassinated by a lunatic for no apparent reason, and started a war which re-wrote the map of Europe. It didn’t have anything to do with America and we should have stayed out of it.
Or maybe: it led to harshly punitive sanctions on Germany which led to massive inflation, which led to the rise of a maniac who single-handedly started World War II. That one was a bit hard to swallow even for a juvenile: no Hitler, no World War II.
Another favorite talking point regarding that first war was Wilson’s League of Nations which was credited with being the blueprint for the United Nations. (Actually, not so much)
Lots of simplification going on in American history textbooks in the 20th century.
No mention of what was going on in the world at the same time, such as:
• the fierce struggle by Suffragettes (on both sides of the pond) to gain the simple right to vote
• the near-hysteric reaction by the public to the growth of the German American Bund. American schools stopped teaching the German language, and renamed sauerkraut “freedom cabbage”.
• towns with German names were permanently renamed; Berlin, Iowa, and Germantown, Nebraska disappeared from the map
• conscientious objectors – including many Mennonites (who objected on religious grounds) were treated like war criminals. Thousands were imprisoned and brutally handled. Some died for their beliefs.
Here’s another one: I read an article recently entitled “How a Difficult, Racist, Stubborn President Was Removed from Power – If not from Office”. With an intriguing title like that, I was eager to learn something that might help me understand politics today. But after reading it through, I realized that although it had the potential to be instructive, my real takeaway was how little I understood the 17th President of the United States and his hapless presidency.
Here it comes: I was taught that Andrew Johnson was misunderstood by Congress and the American people, and he was impeached for merely trying to follow his predecessor’s sympathetic plans for reconstruction and reunification.
In the first place, Abraham Lincoln actually didn’t leave too many hints as to how he was going to reconcile a fractured society, economy, and machinery of government. I still don’t doubt that he could have done it, at least better than what actually transpired during Reconstruction America. But this article revealed that Andrew Johnson was an unreconstructed Southerner (albeit the only one to stick with the Union) and aided and abetted his fellow Southerners in their refusal to reform. THAT certainly wasn’t in any of the history books provided in public school!
Over the years my depth and breadth of knowledge has increased to the point where I can at least question facile explanations for what is going on in the world. And I thankfully retain the curiosity to fact check reports that I once accepted merely because it was “what I was taught.”