Today, I denounced the Vietnam War. Not the soldiers, mind you. Just the flawed foreign policy and myopic worldview that sent these men to the jungles of southeast Asia. The only problem with this is that I denounced this war about fifty years too late.
It’s 2016, in case you weren’t aware, and I spent my day talking about a war that happened before I was born. This is the plight of the history teacher, and it isn’t that bad. I get to spend a large portion of my day looking back at what was and offering up ideas about what might have been, hopefully prompting students to ask what should have been and what should be.
There are definitely worse ways to make a living.
All in all, today was a good day, which is an increasingly rare commodity these days, as it is May. The students are restless—the teachers are, too—but we’ll end the year well.
In 1975. In the Vietnam War.
Just like last year, I’ve been told, as this is my first year.
Just like the previous year, I assume, based upon my previous nine years of experience in other schools.
Just like every year prior, going back to when the books were first purchased, in 2000, when I was a sophomore, a year before I took US History in 2001-2002, when we ended in 1975, in Vietnam.
Do you see this sick pattern? All is not well in academia, at least not the public school sector. There’s a serious crack in the foundation of education in the United States, one that’s been present for quite some time and whose effects are now being seen in our current political nadir.
That flaw is this: I don’t know who Ronald Reagan was.
Ronald Reagan: Man or Myth?
Few political leaders get mentioned as much today as Ronald Reagan—at least by one half of the public discourse—and yet, never have so few truly understood such a key figure. Absurd as it may sound, so many our current issues are due to the rampant historical ignorance of so many adults in this country, myself included.
I’m not arguing for more Regean: I’m arguing for a more complete education of our students. I honestly can’t argue for more Regean because I really don’t know enough about him or his policies to say much about him, which leaves me ignorant of much of the context for current conservative arguments and current liberal rebuttals. In a way, I’m unequipped to to discuss current issues and policies because I’m fundamentally ignorant of their antecedents. How does someone criticize the present if they are unaware of the conditions that lead to it?
Thus, to me, Reagan is either the greatest leader in human history or an overblown figure of questionable importance with a questionable record of success. He might as well be a myth, for all know, and actually, I’m confident that the Reagan who’s worshipped by Republicans and vilified by the Democrats is much more myth than man.
The Problem of a Frozen Historical Perspective
For decades, we’ve only been taking students so far into history, leaving out the recent past, which is an oversight, a bit of good-natured negligence, not some conspiritstorial attempt to control education. Most schools try to avoid conversary as much as possible, so they are prone to leave gaps between the present and the recent past so that the white hot embers of past discourse can cool. Plus, most schools are scrambling for funding, which means that textbooks are updated as seldom as possible in order to save money. It’s just how things happen in public schools, but because of this, we’ve developed this issue of a frozen historical perspective that leaves students in the dark about what happened after the last chopper left Saigon.
When will they learn what happened next? When will they learn about the mistakes made in the 1980’s? 1990’s? 2000’s? Will we ever discuss the failed policies of the “war on terrorism” that helped to shaped this world? Maybe, but how long until we get there?
Has this problem always existed? Yes and no. You can’t publish a book about history and not see it’s last chapter become further and further removed from the present. It’s bound to happen. However, I think that intention should be to get as close as possible. An American History by David Saville Muzzey was used by many schools as a history textbook, and it was published in 1911, and it’s final chapter was spent on the Spanish-American War (1898), Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency (1901-1909), and what the author called “Present-Day Problems.” That’s only a two-year gap between the history covered in the book and year it was made available, which is really incredible. Although, this book was still in wide use in the 1950’s, which means that students being taught US history in the lead-up to World War II probably didn’t learn much about World War I and how it’s poor ending would come back to alter their destiny.
It use to be a foregone conclusion that history books will be used until they themselves have become a historical relic, but why must this truism remain in an age of digital publishing? Why aren’t schools being given the funding to shift to digital texts—in all subjects—that can be kept up to date so that our students don’t miss out on key areas of history? To be clear, I’m not saying that we should have yearly updates. That could see too much “recent” history in the classroom that would cause schools no end of controversy and frustration. What I am advocating is an intentional effort to keep the historical gap under a decade, which means that my students this year should have at least been educated about 9/11 and the first few years of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Although, when you think about it, these conflicts do rhyme.
There are two great quotes about history that I’d like to leave with you, and I think they’ll do a decent job of summing up my concerns.
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. George Santayana
History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Mark Twain (We think?)
Even though these quotes directly contradict each other, the point is clear: history is the key to both understanding the present and properly building for the future. This is why I’m so worried about Ronald Reagan. See, we conclude our US history curriculum with Vietnam, but in comparison to World War I or II, it only gets a passing glance. Three days at the most, and yet, we could argue that the Vietnam War has already “rhymed” with the wars in the Middle East. Another great rhyme of history has occurred, and our students haven’t been afforded the opportunity to understand and learn from it.
So what happens when the Reagan Years rhyme with something in the new future? How will those students who barely learned about the 1970’s be able to understand the 2020’s in light of the 1980’s? Or 1990’s? Or 2000’s? History has a rhyme scheme, but none of us seem to know what is. And since we are basically ignorant of over four decades worth of history, it’s likely that we’re condemned to repeat it.
And if we’re condemned to repeat the past forty years of history, and our textbooks don’t get updated for another ten years, how much worse will it be for our kids?
Understand, this isn’t a diatribe against underfunding education. It’s not just about how we, as teachers, need to give up part of the long past to gain more of the recent past in our curriculum. My point, in a broader sense, is to prompt some thought and discussion about the importance of history education and to reveal a systemic issue that is undermining our present and endangering our future.