« medical information on federal websites | Main | thinking about the fetus without analogy »

May 01, 2003

at the White House

Today was the White House Forum on American History, Civics, and Service, a big event in my field. Our Civic Mission of Schools report was distributed to all 250 of the White House's guests and received a lot of attention.

The Forum exemplified official Washington. The President delivered an especially prepared greeting from a gigantic video screen. Much was made of his new initiative to support history teaching. The First Lady and Lynne Cheney, guarded visibly by the Secret Service, made speeches; and everyone stood each time one of these women took the podium. (Some of the sanctity of high executive office transfers to spouses, apparently.) Patriotic video montages of American history were displayed on the screen. A huge reproduction of a manuscript copy of the Constitution was the backdrop all day. Teenagers were paraded (silently) on stage and bedecked with medals—quite literally. Speakers were introduced with long recitals of their achievements; there was also much thanks to funders and assembled dignataries. Almost all the speakers quoted at least one framer of the Constitution (often deploying little-known and highly relevant quotes—to their credit). Martin Luther King Jr. was also cited widely; and many sentimental stories were told about disadvantaged children. No one mentioned the name of a political party or a major ideology, lest the spirit of nonpartisanship be disturbed. There was general air of congratulation, directed at the people and organizations in the room and at America itself—with one exception: at least half the speakers wagged their fingers at young Americans today for their shocking ignorance of history.

My academic training makes me want to rebel against this kind of show. I want to ask: What do we know about the trends in historical knowledge over time? What do we know about the factors that make historical education successful? What is the impact of a historical education, or of historical knowledge, on people over their lifetimes? What will the impact of the new presidential initiative be? (At $100 million over three years, it represents a vanishingly small commitment in the context of the federal budget.) Since there are competing grand narratives of American history, how do we know which one is more correct? Is Howard Zinn's story of greed and violence (which was explicitly criticized during the session) false? Is it less valid than the "moderate triumphalist" narrative that one speaker recommended as an alternative? What are the effects of such stories on youth development?

Notwithstanding all these questions and doubts, I recognize that public institutions are not academic seminars. Mutual praise is oil that probably has to be poured periodically over civil society. Vague statements of commitment from the President of the United States are not empty; they are useful ammunition in struggles at the local level. And leaders are entitled to make a big deal about $100 million programs that they have proposed. You would have to be a kind of political puritan to expect them not to capitalize on the symbolism of such initiatives. It doesn't only take truth and critical debate to make large institutions run; they also need symbolism, ritual, and even etiquette. Washington does these things well.

Posted by peterlevine at May 1, 2003 11:29 AM