Skip to content →

Who’s Afraid of History?

Contemporary US society.

(That’s who)

The College Board revised the AP history exam to better reflect actual historical knowledge and scholarship. Manufactured political outrage convinced them to water it down with nationalism.

From NPR:

For example, in the 2014 version Europeans “helped increase the intensity and destructiveness of American Indian warfare.” Now it says simply that the Europeans’ introduction of guns and alcohol “stimulated changes” in Native communities.

People are deeply uncomfortable with the past. Just ask Ben Affleck. He tried to cover the fact that he is the descendant of slaveholders (and then got Streisand-ed). I’ve started doing some genealogy work on my own family and traced some ancestors back to 18th century South Carolina. I don’t have any evidence about slaveholding, but I’m not going to be surprised if they did. It was part of the society — a terrible, violent part. Slavery is a part of US history that we need to remember, not cover up or dismiss. Being a descendant of slave owners doesn’t make you personally bad or immoral. It does force you to acknowledge your white privilege, an uncomfortable (for many), indisputable (for all) fact of American history.

At some level, it’s even simpler. We like binary narratives with a “good guy,” a “bad guy,” and no grey area in between. We prefer history to be verifiable facts and dates. Ambiguity scares us. History is ambiguous.

Take for example, ESPN. Their more recent round of 30 for 30 documentaries are an excellent example of bad historical storytelling. Last year(ish), I watched a few of the features and noticed how subject-driven they were. Subject-driven not simply in a narrative sense. The films were clearly efforts to rehab/support the image of the subject (often with close collaboration between subject and filmmaker). Watching separate documentaries on the Ohio State and Miami football team in the early 2000s underscored this misstep. Instead of producing a brilliant documentary surrounding their meeting in the 2002 national title game (played in 2003), they told each story separately. This avoided presenting the audience with competing narratives. They both can be the “good guys” if you tell the stories one at a time.

Grappling with the past is tough — especially when talking about systemic violence and other uncomfortable realities. Instead of ignoring or simplifying the complexities of the past, we should embrace them. The past is complex. Life is complex. Tomorrow will be complex. Learning to deal with difficult subjects is vital to maintaining a knowledgeable society.

Published in Public Humanities Teaching