Advancing a Free Society

California Abandons History for Melodrama

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Just when you think California can’t get any wackier, the state legislature steps up and proves you wrong. Despite a looming fiscal catastrophe that should be concentrating the minds of politicians, the Assembly is set to vote on SB 48, a bill already passed by the Senate, which will “require instruction in social sciences to also include a study of the role and contributions of Native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, European Americans, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans, persons with disabilities, and other ethnic and cultural groups, to the development of California and the United States.” Even more troubling, the bill says that “The state board or and any governing board shall not adopt any textbooks or other instructional materials for use in the public schools that contain any matter reflecting adversely upon persons on the basis of race or ethnicity, gender, religion, disability, nationality, sexual orientation.”

The rationale put forth by the bill’s sponsor Mark Leno, is a bit of naked ideological engineering on contested social issues that should not be the business of public schools: “It is very basic to me that people dislike and fear that with which we are less familiar,” Leno told the New York Times, going on to assert the dubious proposition that students who experience greater familiarity with those who are different will find that “their behavior changes for the better.” Of course, actual experience suggests quite the opposite: that greater familiarity often breeds greater contempt. Schools and popular culture have worked mightily to stigmatize slurs against homosexuals, with the result that young people have simply turned “gay” into a homophobic slur. Just listen to a teenager say “That’s so gay” and you know that he means what L.A. Laker star Kobe Bryant did when he called a referee what our delicate media now calls the “F-word.” And if decades of popular culture’s lobbying not just for acceptance of gay people, but their superiority, hasn’t bred acceptance of homosexuals in young people, then it’s doubtful that hectoring curricula in the schools will be any more successful than have been most safe-sex and anti-drug programs.

But something more pernicious is at work here than the old debased Enlightenment idea that knowledge is virtue, that if you are taught what’s good, you will do the good. This bill is really about identity politics: the notion that certain selected minorities are victims of prejudice, exclusion, and bigotry, and so are owed special group-considerations by government agencies. Getting the government to provide such reparations demonstrates the power of the group’s lobby, which in turn makes it easier to extort even more privileges. The teaching of history is particularly important for this process, on the totalitarian principle George Orwell set out in 1984: “’Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’” Hence for the last four decades we have seen more and more history curricula that are nothing more than ethnic or sex cheerleading passed off as history. Marginal figures who at best deserve a brief mention instead come to dominate the lesson, crowding out more important or significant material. Given that there are only so many hours in a school day, adding ever more groups to the conga-line of victimhood (see list above) means something else has to be left out. That’s one reason why most students enter college with a woeful ignorance of history, even as they are experts on identity-group icons whose “achievements” and “contributions” often amount to little more than their ethnicity or sex.

Finally, the correlative to the grievance politics victim is the victimizer. Hence these curricula finger the usual suspects––white males and their insidious “institutional racism.” The complexity of history and human nature is simplified into a melodrama of white evil and everybody else’s righteous innocence. The victim is always right, always morally superior, and never to be given the full humanity that necessarily requires an acknowledgement that good and evil often reside in the same hearts, and that victims themselves can also be victimizers. Rather, those designated as “victims” may never be criticized or subject to the same scrutiny of their actions as motives as are white Euro-Americans.

Hence the bill’s creepiest requirement: that nothing “reflecting adversely” on any of the privileged victims be presented in the curriculum. Of course, “adversely” will often reflect nothing more than the subjective feelings of whoever claims to be insulted, no matter how thin-skinned or irrationally sensitive they may be––or pretend to be in order to flex some identity-politics muscle. So we can imagine a Mexican-American student complaining that a lesson on Pancho Villa’s violent raids into the United States in 1916 reflects “adversely” on his race, or a Japanese-American student feeling the same about a unit covering the attack on Pearl Harbor and the origins of World War II in Imperial Japan’s racist militarism. And don’t even bother looking for any discussion of Islam’s 14-centuries-long history of aggression, enslavement, conquest, and occupation. It has already been erased from the curriculum as thoroughly as Trotsky from an old Soviet May Day photograph.

This hypersensitive vagueness means that most textbook writers will play it safe and simply write soothing melodrama and peppy puff-pieces rather than history, thus making sure they insult no one on the “do-not-reflect-adversely-on” list. Obviously, whoever has made a significant contribution to history should be recognized regardless of race, sex, or sexual orientation. But by starting with the demand that representatives of those categories be included regardless of larger historical significance, we end up with feel-good micro-history that pushes out the great events and trends that help us understand history and its relevance to the present. So students learn all about women nurses in the Civil War, but nothing about the military strategy of Grant and Sherman. The end result of such therapeutic history will be more power for the grievance industry, and more ignorance for students whatever their “race or ethnicity, gender, religion, disability, nationality, sexual orientation.”

(photo credit: Robb North)