Every country expects its historians to construct a national narrative casting it in a light most favorable A nationalistic, patriotic story is needed, it is believed, to instill unity, loyalty and pride and to provide a credible historical basis for the prevailing structures of authority.
For a long time the United States conformed to this tradition of celebrating the past. American history as presented in our standard textbooks whether in high school or college offered an upbeat story about the glorious American Experiment that emphasized the growth of freedom and the spread of Democracy, the expansion out West, the rise of industry, the emergence of an enterprising urban middle class, the advance of universal education and the rise to prominence of the U.S. on the world stage. Authors supported the idea of “American Exceptionalism”, suggesting that our society was distinctive, even superior to those established elsewhere.
But the landscape began to change. Particular events may help explain what happened. The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy caused some to ask whether we had long been a violent society. Our involvement in Vietnam and our support of dictatorships overseas led to questions about the motives behind American actions abroad. The Civil Rights movement prompted many Americans to revisit the tortured history of our race relations while the widespread protests against the war in Vietnam brought to light our experience with popular political movements. In sum, contemporary events were encouraging a more thorough and searching investigation of our past.
Meanwhile, many professional historians began to alter their approach. They insisted that instead of writing history from the perspective of those in authority (“top down”) who possessed the power, influence and social standing , it was time to reverse course and tell the stories of those occupying the lower rungs of society. It became known as history “from the bottom up.” It was a challenge to produce such a narrative because many of the protagonists were “inarticulate”, rarely left extensive written documents, but it presented a vast new field for exploration. After all, toward the bottom of the social heap were immigrants, slum dwellers, workers, farmers, African Americans, Native Americans and lots of women and children. Moreover, the standard triumphalist history usually did not apply, for here were people struggling, often exploited, frequently discriminated against and denied the “American Dream”.
This approach was presented most forcefully and persuasively in Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United states (1980)”. He began by challenging the hero worship surrounding Christopher Columbus (who, he wrote, was responsible for “conquest, slavery and death”) and kept up this unorthodox, unflattering assessment of America’s past throughout his work. Most professional historians attacked him for his “tortured reasoning” and for producing a “deranged fairy tale” and an”absolutely atrocious agit-prop”. But students at both the high school and college levels were enthusiastic as were legions of adult readers. Zinn had violated existing taboos and included a cast of characters rarely if ever recognized in such works and also punctured the notion of American benevolence and exceptionalism. And “People’s History” became a runaway best seller with sales that continue to increase and whose influence easily exceeded that of any other textbook in American History.
As a consequence American history has become a keenly contested battleground. Conservatives have fought back on many a school board and curriculum committee across the country. They have insisted that the approach taken by Zinn and others be kept out of the classroom. Students ought not, in their view be exposed to a one-sided, distorted “radical” tale of grievance and conflict, an account that promotes skepticism of established authority, casts doubt about our adherence to America’s professed values, and views capitalism at times as a destructive, inhumane system. History, they insist, is best employed to promote loyalty and patriotism, to encourage unity, not fragmentation, to support those who govern and not cater to mindless “nay-sayers” who seek to tear down, not build up.
So, who is right? Those who sugarcoat our history, or writers who’ve brought to light the less savory aspects of our past. The answer, of course, is to let the chips fall where they may. America’s story is grand enough, unique and successful enough to stand on its own. We have achieved much and have long been a magnet for people across the world. Along the way, however, there has been destruction, exploitation, political corruption, failure and the deliberate exclusion of substantial segments of the population. So, is the glass half empty or half full? If you’re thirsty, half full is unacceptable. If not, the water level is no problem.