The Untold History of the United States of America
My knowledge of contemporary American history is rather lacking. I skipped US history in high school, going to an alternative high school, where I had the pleasure of reading the People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. These days I definitely understand the criticisms of that text – he went a little too far too the left, but he still brought up valid points, and points of view regarding our history.
And every now and then I get a glimpse of the dark side of US History, specifically the corruption seemingly prevalent in the US until the late '70’s, early '80’s. Operation Greylord and Serpico are probably the most well-known examples. Reading Allen Foster Dulles biography a couple summers ago opened my eyes a little wider regarding our previous forays around the globe. (Still boycotting Chiquita.) I came across this also while doing research - Political Corruption in America: An Encyclopedia of Scandals, Power, and Greed by Mark Grossman. Has anyone read this or know of anything similar?
My main question though is what is taught in high school these days regarding American history? How comprehensive is it? And what did you learn after high school that made you question your textbooks, if anything?
My reason for all this is the old saw about history repeating itself. What chapters are being lost? What stories are untold, that should be told.
And for non-American dopers, how comprehensive are your history textbooks?
I put this in IMHO, since that is essentially what I am looking for, but there are GQ and GD elements also.
I love American history. I would have been my favorite class had I had any real teachers. We didn’t go into any real depths in any of my classes. I mean, for the Civil War, we watched Gettysburg, and that was all.
So to answer you question, in my high school, we didn’t get taught anything.
My AP Government teacher on the other hand would discuss stuff with us. Current events and such. He was republican as can be, and if a student disagreed with him, they’d debate it. He did that so we’d (the class) would hear both sides of an issue and think for ourselves.
There is not time in high school to completely address the vast subject of American history properly. The best one can hope for is a general knowledge of the basic events. Someone said that history is a pack of lies about the dead. It’s also, of course, written by the victors in every conflict.
I had a history minor in college, and have read numerous books about specific events, times and people in American history. The best college course I had was taught by a man who taught us about original research.
The truth about most issues is that the U.S. is neither as good and perfect as the idealists say, nor as evil and pernicious as claimed by the pessimists. I can recommend several excellent books if you’re interested.
Just this afternoon I had a conversation about U.S. presidents with a very bright 30-something. (She’s also extremely attractive, BTW, and no, I’m not prejudiced just because she’s my daughter.) I pointed out that before JFK was assassinated, he was not really all that popular, and that he actually won the office by far less than a landslide. “But he accomplished a lot,” she commented. “Like going to the moon.” Actually, he accomplished very little. He proposed some things, and failed miserably at others (Bay of Pigs, for example). What did succeed on his agenda was mostly actually *accomplished * by LBJ, who was feared, respected, and often loathed for being a loud, boorish, crude individual. He also knew how to play the political game with Congress.
Abe Lincoln, who is revered and honored today, was the target of much vitriol during his election campaign and presidency. Thomas Jefferson was also the target of a great deal of scurrilous gossip, some of which may very well have been true (see “Sally Hemings”).
Finally, the native Americans were neither wholly vicious nor noble, although it is pretty well accepted accurately that they were exploited and maltreated by most of the Europeans.
One common trait of American History taught in high school is that it simply stops at some arbitrary time like the late 1960’s. Very strange. I think they would be better off skipping some stuff after the Civil War and bringing students up to the present.
As a general rule, American history is very poorly taught in high schools. There is too much of it really for a class or two so it tends to be just fluff survey type stuff.
There some obvious fallacies that tend to be almost universally taught: The first colonists were all Puritans, the founding fathers were trying to take a religious stance against England, and race relations were a simple North/South issue. The history of slavery in the North including once thriving slave trading ports in the Northeast is very rarely taught and the complexities involved in the Civil War are reduced to a few bullet points.
AP U.S. History is a rigorous course when taught properly, and while no 9 month survey can really get into complexity, it does demand that there is at least a recognition that there are complex issues to be explored. Furthermore, to pass the exam you have to be able to use 6-8 primary source documents that you have never seen before to construct an arguement for a particular historical position. So students in well-taught AP programs do get a sense of where history comes from, and recognize that there is always an element of interpretation.
Also usually glossed over is the fact that the rebellious colonists very nearly lost several times, and in fact surely would have except for the French. In addition, I never heard it mentioned in high school that the conflict in the colonies was a smaller part of a larger conflict and that had GB not been deeply involved in other conflicts they could surely have defeated the Americans.
Thanks for the link. That is type of event I am looking for.
I’ve noticed two areas that have been ignored: how predominant overt racism was in America, which continues even today. The burning of the black churches in the South during the 90’s being a prime example, which has seemed to have dropped off everyones radar. The white flight of the 50’s and 60’s still seems to be a taboo subject also.
The other area is labor relations in the US. Major events such as the Homestead Strike are written to appear as abnormal events, rather than fairly common for the time.
I think it was in Zinn that I read only about 1/3 of the colonists really supported the revolution, 1/3 was Tory and 1/3 didn’t much give a damn one way or the other. Which is probably true for most events in history, i.e. pro/con/neither.
A jaded and funny book is A Parliaiment of Whores by P. J. O’ Rourke, in which he attempts to describe how the US Government really works. (I know this is more civics than history…) He wrote it when the Democrats controlled Congress; now that his beloved Republicans are in charge I’ve been waiting in vain for the sequel (or at least a nice epilogue…)
My high school had “phase elective” history/social studies, so we got to pick and choose, every quarter, what we wanted to take. As a result, many kids in my high school took very little US history.
I don’t think that corruption stopped after the 70’s and 80’s - I think we are currently in one of the most corrupt periods in US History.
And White Flight was not just a 50’s and 60’s thing… it’s still alive and well. In many cities, it really didn’t start in earnest until after the riots of '68.
White flight refers to the mass mass migration of the white population from the city centers to the suburbs starting in the 1950’s. White people used to actually live in the city centers and there wasn’t much in the way of what we now think of as suburbs. In the 1950’s and later, white people left the city centers and black people immigrated into them in city centers all over the U.S. The white population formed the the types of suburbs that we see today. Since then, we have seen renewal and gentrification in some cities that has restored parts of the white population to the cities but the overall trend is longlasting.
To expand on others comments, from my understanding it really picked up with the desegregation of the schools and mandatory busing (Wikipedia article implemented during the 70’s. Several major cities are still under a court order and have to watch enrollment levels closely to avoid triggering penalties.
White flight was a prime example of unintended consequences and people ‘voting’ with their feet.
I never realized how ugly and drastic the consequences were until I moved here to St Louis. It went from a population of about 850,000 in 1950 to a low of around 350,000 in the 90’s. Wikipedia has a good table showing the changes in population over time.
A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution by Carol Berkin. Topic: The period between the end of the Revolution and the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. (Most of my history classes kind of skimmed over this time period, with a brief reference to the Articles of Confederation as a temporary measure that just didn’t work out so they wrote the Constitution. )
The church burning thing has largely dropped off the radar because it was shown to be pretty much a non-story. It was fairly widely reported that there was no great statistical increase in the burning of black churches in the '90s, and that at any rate there were many more white churches burned in that same period. (cite, cite, cite). Also, white flight, if taken to mean the suburbanization of whites in general, did have an element of racism (particularly after the riots in the late 60s, as someone else pointed out), but can’t be fairly described as a solely racist phenomenon. There was the big housing shortage after the war, the economy was booming and people could afford their own places, new production methods enabled Levittowns to sprout up all over the place – lots of reason besides racism.
Besides, in general I would disagree with you that racism isn’t addressed in schools. If anything, that’s the one thing that’s addressed over and over. I was taught about racism towards the Native Americans, slavery and oppression of blacks, the emancipation of women, prejudice against the Irish and Italian immigrants, the civil rights movement, etc. Many classes of my 10th grade history class were spent in nothing but endless debate over the state of current race relations (granted, that was the year of the OJ trial). And while these are good things to discuss and learn about, I can’t help but wonder if it’s not overdone. I feel like I learned more about slavery than the war that ended it.
You’re right about labor relations though. The only thing I can remember learning about labor relations in school was from reading “The Grapes of Wrath” – and that was in English class. Oh, wait – we did learn some about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and its aftermath.
I moved pretty regularly as a child, so my education in history (and other subjects) was a bit disjointed – I’d arrive in a school district where they taught different things in different years, and either I’d get a repeat of something I’d already learned, or I’d miss a whole chapter of history. In general, though, (and I think this happens in a lot of classes), we’d get a lot of detailed work on the early stuff, get behind, and kind of rush through the rest of it. So I learned a lot about the founding of the country and the revolution, quickly covered the 19th century, and zipped through the first half of the 20th century at the very end of the year. On the whole, the information I did get seemed pretty balanced – we learned both good and bad things the country had done. My 12th grade history teacher, a self-declared Republican, described the causes of the Revolutionary War as being fairly ludicrous and reactionary, and drove home the fact that John Adams defended the British soldiers accused in the Boston Massacre. That stuck with me.
For point of reference, I went to a pretty even mix of private Catholic schools, public schools, and Department of Defense run schools, and I graduated from high school in 1998.
My American history class in high school was not particularly good, so last year I decided to do a little American history survey of my own. I only made it up to the Louisiana Purchase, so I’ve decided to keep going (usually I pick a new topic every year).
May I also recommend a couple completely unrelated books:
American Colonies, by Alan Taylor. Very interesting, very well-written book about the European colonization of North America and the Caribbean. Ends in 1776.
An American Insurrection by William Doyle. About the integration of the University of Mississippi.
I have this thread bookmarked, please keep the recommendations coming. I had that Borneman War of 1812 book in my hand at Borders recently and for some reason ended up not getting it. D’oh. Well, next time round.
I can’t speak to the book but this is an exceedingly important topic and pivotal event that does not get nearly enough coverage in history classes. Basically what happened was a flaw in the system was exposed and exploited. Jefferson ran as president with Burr as his vice president. At that time electors were allowed to vote for two canidates, presumably a president and vice president. Now the Jefferson/Burr ticket won but the Democrat-Republicans made the seemingly blindlingly obvious error of having all their electors vote for both Jefferson and Burr thus ending the election in a tie and sending it to the House.
Now, what probably should have been a funny story you tell at the bar turned into the biggest constitutional crisis. Burr, instead of stepping aside and allowing Jefferson to be elected, made a grab for the presidency with the support of the Federalists. Imagine the controversy and crisis it would be if this happened today. Now, we are 225 years into the existance of America and everyone in this country identifies as an American first. In contrast the election of 1800 was the first time power was going to switch hands between parties in a fledgling democracy comprised of essentially 13 different nations.
We also think that today politics are messy and consist of mudslinging. Well let me tell you, the stuff that goes on today would be downright cordial back then. Federalists accused the Democrat Republicans of wanting to dismantle the Federal government and the D/Rs accused the Federalists of instituting a repressive government like the British were. At the time Britain and France were at war. In pursuing that war France had begun siezing American shipping heading to Europe. In response America began to mobilize an army and made plans to ally with Britain against France. As someone said early you have to remember that there was a significant, if not majority, of Americans that had wanted to stay British. This feeling hadn’t exactly disappeared and it was natural for each side to support the country that was on its side in the revolution.
With that as a setting the House convened to elect the President. 33 ballots and a week later Jefferson was finally elected. I can’t stress how close the country was coming to collapsing. There was a legitimate fear in Congress that a mob would form and march on Washington to instill Jefferson as President. I could go on and on about this time of American history and how terrible it is taught in schools. This time is portrayed as though nothing happened. Only a few comments are made in passing between the revolutionary war and the War of 1812. I mean, 10 years after the Revolutionary War was over there was a rebellion that took 13,000 troops to suppress. Thats huge and it was only one of the myriad forces pulling the nation apart.
While I would agree that the typical suburbanite of the 1950s did not move out to suburbia for the primary purpose to flee blacks–that was pretty much an event that began with the riots of 1966 and 1967, before which many whites had stayed in the cities–there is another racist aspect of the move to suburbia: most of the communities (Levittown notable among them) had rules that prohibited blacks from attempting to buy houses in them. It was only with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that such rules were outlawed (and another year or so before the Supreme Court ruled that such rules could not be defended by the Constitution), so racism did play an earlier part in suburbanization than some folks would like to recall.
[ Anecdote Alert ]
The original deed restrictions on my parents’ house included language that prohibited “anyone not of the white gentile race” from purchasing the property.
When General Motors built the Tech Center in Warren, MI, one of the groups that moved there was my Dad’s. They had been using a facility at the back of the Cadillac plant in Detroit. In the 1967 (or so) meeting of that staff in which GM’s CEO announced that GM was implementing an internal (not government mandated) policy of affirmative action, Dad responded to all the grumbling by pointing out that everyone who had stood up and objected to the announcement that there “would be no coloreds” at the Tech Center, now had the right to protest the new policy. The Tech Center was built in 1954 and its construction (and racial composition) had been announced two years earlier.
[ /Anecdote Alert ]