Monday, August 02, 2010

I was thinking about the history taught in school when I was a kid, back in the '80s. I can't imagine it's improved much at all since then, but from my limited vantage-point, it's become more intensely itself, which is a bad thing.

It's important that K-through-12 public-school kids attend "social studies" classes, rather than history. It's important because they get taught "social studies" history. American history as taught in those classes, especially in that period between the Civil War and the Great Depression, is taught according to a very rigid point of view.

Because it is taught by union fanatics, labor history of the period is presented in a very Whiggish, march-towards-the-Wagner-Act sort of melodrama, in which the literal proletariat suffers from repeated impositions of Marxist-style ideology - defined classically as a superstructure of false beliefs concocted by a dominant class to suppress the natural expression of subordinate & oppressed classes. The interests of labor and entrepreneurs and their true history is distorted through this lens of Organized Labor Triumphant, the messy details reduced to narratives of secular Crusade & martyrdom.

Large swathes of Gilded Age political history is absolutely impenetrable to struggling students, because it is taught by public servants who are more interested in their predecessors' passion play of reform and independence through civil service reform. Real and vital political struggles between interest groups - between entrepreneurs, rent-seekers, speculators, the arrogant legions of the rising professional class, and the various and diametrically opposed political machines - get washed out in a sepia blur of "reformers against the bosses". Again, a sort of reverse Whiggish progression makes incoherent characterless bosh of the events in all their true colors.

The great arguments over currency is usually repellent and confused in the classroom, because the teachers are poorly educated on the subject of economics, business, and money. The "Marxist moment" has long since passed in the training academies, but that incorrect and debunked set of doctrines haven't been replaced by anything useful or even equally false, but rather nothing at all. How can "social studies" teachers teach about the conflict over greenbacks, hard currency, and bimetallism, if they don't even really understand Gresham's Law?

Lastly, the Progressive Era is usually taught as a bloodless extension of the "Reform Era", as a culmination of "American Liberalism" and its goals, mostly because "social studies" are taught by political progressives, who were raised to believe that their ideology was something called "liberalism" and thus a descendant of nineteenth-century Liberalism and Whiggery. This means that the students are often mis-educated into the belief that the Progressives were something organic, popular, and arising from the national character, rather than a modernizing crisis of that character, and the failure of confidence in the American project. The current Beckian-Goldbergian assault upon Wilson, Croly and the Progressives is such a popular revisionist trend these days *because* of the emptiness and falsity of the narrative taught in the schools about this era and that movement. The Progressive-Whiggish myth of the era creates massive cases of cognitive dissonance when the student encounters the actual historical details later in life.

All of which, I suppose, is a lead-up to a recommendation of a pair of books I've read this summer - David Pietrusza's 1920: the Year of Six Presidents and Ken Okrent's Last Call: the Rise and Fall of Prohibition. These two books address two sides of the "Progressive Moment". 1920 does so from the angle of Wilson's harsh and disruptive totalizing rule and the step-back from the brink that took place in that election year. Last Call looks at the era from the angle of that most quintessentially American of Progressive projects, Prohibition, a conversion of the Whiggish temperance movement into a corporatist, regimented, stubbornly transformative apparat, and how that social and political movement's encounter with human nature deformed the American economy and civil society, and was defeated in the end by corruption, individual initiative, human nature, and the collapse of the technocratically managed economy.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your recommendation of "1920: The Year of the Six Presidents."

Glad you enjoyed it.

David Pietrusza said...

Great job, Mitch! You are an excellent writer. I couldn't agree with you more!

which_chick said...

I was gonna commend your prose in this entry, but someone beat me to it. *sigh*

Mitch H. said...

Thanks, Chris, Jessica. I fear I'm still over-writing, but at this point I suppose it's more of a "style" than something I can correct.

Maybe I *should* have let Ash & Meghan talk me into that purple tie last week, to go with the prose. ^_^