I used to wonder what it might have felt like to be a person living through any of those paragraphs about awful things that happened in my American history textbooks. Turns out, it feels pretty miserable.
Here in America, we make a big deal about “We the People.” We’re always going on about the “will of the people”, the “voice of the people” and such. Veneration of The People is a core aspect of how we describe and discuss ourselves. And yet, an awkward tension exists in our democratic lives. While we espouse a deep, sacred reverence for The People, the stories we most often tell about ourselves are dominated by a few strong, individual heroes.
Think about the version of American history you were given in school. It probably goes something like this:
In 1492, Christopher Columbus discovered America. Soon after, European explorers like Cortes and De Soto came in search of gold. After them came John Winthrop and John Smith to colonize the North American wilds. The colonies grew until they could no longer tolerate the abuses of King George. And so, General George Washington crossed the Delaware River with his crew and defeated the Red Coats. A group of smart men led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison wrote the Constitution and then elected George Washington as our first president because he was very honest about cutting down that cherry tree. Over time, the States disagreed about slavery and how to organize their individual economies. Grant and Lee fought a Civil War. Thankfully, Abraham Lincoln was there to make the Civil War turn out right.
You get the idea. The stories we tell ourselves about our own past do not belong to us. They focus exclusively on the acts of powerful, privileged few. There is no doubt that powerful individuals often make bold, sometimes courageous decisions that impact their times and future generations. But, too often, we mistake their biographies as our entire history. History is bigger than biography.
Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is an antidote for the usual biographical mode of telling history. Reading Zinn’s book is a strange, unsettling experience. There are dangerous ideas hiding inside. Ideas about war and voting as methods of domestic subjugation and social control. Buried accounts of civil disobedience, social action and unrest that resulted in lasting improvements in the lives of working people across the country.
Zinn’s history is full of surprises and surprising takes on a once familiar history. But the thing that makes Zinn’s prose most powerful is the lack of a biographical narrative. The usual heroes are absent from the center stage. When they appear, it is in reaction to the collective acts of organized masses — organized in their shared need, anger and frustration.
Zinn offers an account of American history focused entirely on the accumulating success of collective actions rather than the biographical quirks of a selective, impressive few. That the book succeeds in telling our shared story without making it the province of a few powerful players makes it a useful touchstone for understanding what America is and what America might become. 688 pages that give your country back to you. Highly recommended.
My college lost an extraordinary colleague today. Dr. John Thomas taught history. He died after a long struggle with cancer.
I won’t eulogize him here. There are so many people who knew him so much better than I did. They will tell his story.
What I want to say is this: when I think about the point of educating and becoming educated, I often think about a lecture series John put together in the aftermath of September 11. In the frenzied, frightening months after the violence of September 11, 2001, John Thomas delivered a series of lectures about British mercantilism. John’s stories of the British sugar, tobacco and rum trade with the American colonies helped me understand why the study of history matters. In the lead-up to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, John’s impassioned, amusing stories helped me see my own times in a more rational light. I majored in history as an undergraduate, but John’s lectures were the first time I felt that I really understood what the study of history was about.
I wasn’t learning about mercantilism, colonial politics or international conflict. I was learning about the kinds of questions historians ask. I was learning how historians think about the problems they encounter in their own lives. I was observing how the well-disciplined mind brings patience, perspective and light into confused, chaotic times.
John helped me understand why teaching and learning matter. We teach to help others discipline their minds to think in useful ways that make new kinds of ideas possible. We learn to train our own minds so we can become more patient and perceptive.
John’s response to the fear and uncertainty of September would have been the same no matter what discipline he taught. It could as easily have been math, literature or biology. The subject content is not the point. Teaching can be an act of bravery, a bold affirmation that our learning leads us forward, gives us clarity when times are unclear and offers the right questions when everything feels uncertain.
I am grateful to John Thomas and the other master teachers I have known. They remind us that the work has dignity and purpose. They remind us that the work is vital.
This is just a quick note to myself to follow up. Last night I wrote (no, enthused) that we create History. This morning I woke up thinking this is wrong. We don’t create History. History creates us.
I need to revisit Emerson on this. He wrote a lot about this very thing. Whatever he said on this, I suspect it was wrong, but I know he that he said it interestingly and said it well.
Anytime I find myself capitalizing a noun (like History or Man or Nature) I should immediately remind myself to read Emerson before posting. It would save me a lot of trouble.