Leave History Alone?

Phoenix Magazine – August 2017

Mike O’Neil

There is a lot of discussion, in Arizona and elsewhere, about whether to remove public Civil War memorials to Confederate heroes.  Arizona has several of these. The stories surrounding each of the Arizona monuments will be discussed in next month’s Phoenix Magazine; we have no need to get into those specific stories here.  Let’s just note that many of these monuments date, in Arizona as elsewhere, rather suspiciously not to the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, but to more recent times, often the early 1960s, when civil rights for black citizens was increasingly the subject of public debate.  That timing is, at the very least, suspect.

In reading through the comments on one of the articles about the Arizona monuments I was struck by a single comment on one local discussion thread.  The writer wrote simply : “Why can’t we leave history alone?”  The context made it clear that she was concerned that people behind the movement to remove some of these memorials were trying to challenge “history.” I am sure she was unaware of this, but by “history,” of course, she meant the specific version of history she happened to have been taught in school.

Any real historian would wince at the suggestion for it betrays a complete misunderstanding of what history is.

In grade and high school, we are exposed to a mass of information about our past, usually from a single textbook with the word “History” on the cover. It is not unreasonable for those whose study of history goes no further than this to come to assume that everything in such a text is “fact”.     If one goes no further, it is easy to slip into the mistaken belief that these are objective Truths.  Attempts to change these can be seen as some form of “political correctness”. Wouldn’t we be better off if we just let these be? It can be upsetting, after all, to discover that long-held beliefs are suspect.

Here’s the fallacy in this belief: the version of “history” that is taught at any point is the product of the perspective of the writer and dominant strains of thought at the time that “history” was recorded. Don’t think perspective matters? Take a short spin to any of the Native American reservations that surround metro Phoenix.  See if they have the same take on western expansion as you were taught.  Sometimes this perspective is modified by contemporary reinterpretation.  Most historical research tends to show the frailty and selectivity of initial historical recordings.  And only the passage of time can permit us to see through the built-in biases of a particular epoch to achieve a more complete understanding of our past.

Political forces have, sometimes deliberately, foisted views of history on our schools.  And textbook controversies have often been explicitly political. The most impactful these efforts were the decades long influence of Mel and Norma Gabbler who waged a mostly successful crusade against public school textbooks they regarded as “anti-family” or “anti-Christian”.  They also lobbied against the teaching of evolution, sex education and internationalism. While they began their work in their native Texas, their impact was national in scope, since the Texas market was centralized and textbook publishers found it economically prohibitive to produce textbook separate textbook versions for Texas and for the rest of the country, many conformed to the Gabblers’ dictates.  

But there are few areas where the politicization of what is taught in schools more evident than in the way our country’s Civil War is taught.  For many years, even the term “Civil War” was eschewed in the Southern states in favor of “War Between the States” or some other alternative. Some alternatives did not even attempt to hide their sentiments about what they referred to as the “War of Northern Aggression”. Many of these retellings deliberately downplay the role of slavery as the primary cause of the civil war in favor of explanations that favored “states’ rights,” “preservation of a southern way of life” (without specifying what that was) or other factors. The prominence of slavery in original sources, like the various states’ Articles of Secession were downplayed, if mentioned at all.  And such presentations made the building of monuments to the Noble Cause palatable.

Markers denoting the location of a historically significant battle, such as that of Picacho Peak may acknowledge the location of an historical event.  But when such monuments depict military leaders in heroic poses or include equivalent language, it is easy for them to slip past acknowledgement of historic fact into the realm of glorification of the cause for which they fought.

Mike O’Neil is a sociologist and pollster who has analyzed public attitudes in Arizona and the nation for over 35 years. He is host of the public affairs program, The Think Tank, on KTAR-FM 92.3. Most of his recent articles are available at www.mikeoneil.org.