As a one-time American history teacher, I wrestled with the deficiencies of textbooks, which are as much the product of Texas politics as historical scholarship and challenge teachers to breathe life into dull prose and dead people. In fairness, the text is hard to put together. When I was in school, ours ended with the Korean Conflict, traced the westward movement of Europeans across the continent, and relied on documents written by educated white men. Quite a bit has happened since then, including an array of tools enabling historians to uncover the long-stifled voices of marginalized peoples. Such changes have not sat well with everyone. In the recent tiff over Advanced Placement history standards, for example, some school boards, and the Republican National Committee, demanded changes in textbooks to extol patriotism and “American exceptionalism” and to show America in a more positive light – what we used to call propaganda.
Which brings me to newly unearthed histories at two of America’s most prominent universities: Georgetown’s sale of 272 slaves to plantations in the Deep South to raise operating funds and Harvard’s embrace of a eugenics movement that promoted racial purity and the forced sterilization of those who, in the words of U.S. Chief Justice – and Harvard pillar – Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., “sap the strength of the State.”
Shouldn’t the historian’s role be to uncover and confront the truth of our past, however painful, as Georgetown, and, I hope, Harvard, is doing, rather than airbrush it? True patriotism can’t be built on lies.