Monday, January 19, 2009


When I was in graduate school I wrote a brilliant research paper on the evolution of the health insurance crisis. And, apparently I laid the blame squarely on physicians, evil scourge that they are. And my professor, himself a physician, gave me a low B citing the paper as well reasoned but too polemic.

One of the things I learned in graduate school was the word polemic, which I think of as meaning simplistically controversial.

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day I'm reading the "Gone With the Wind" chapter in the book Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Lowewen. The book allegedly debunks myths of American history by telling the "real story" behind such American institutions as the first Thanksgiving and the "discovery of America". This chapter is about the sugar coating, and even glamorization, of slavery in American history. As I'm reading the chapter and reflecting on the roots of racism I find myself distracted by Lowewen's polemic argument. Like this one: Very few textbooks clearly state that Thomas Jefferson was a profitable slave owner. Must be a conspiracy to keep blacks down.

Maybe so. Or maybe the rationale for what to include in a history book is far more nuanced than this. Maybe history textbooks written for kids were edited by smart people who understood that Jefferson's ethical and moral ambiguity about being a slave owner was too complicated for young children to understand - too complicated in fact for many grown adults to understand. Maybe the writers of history textbooks chose to focus on the evils of slavery rather than the hypocrisy of the time because they wanted to exclusively focus on the slavery = bad message.

Myriad psychosocial development theorists would posit that many young children - and again many adults - aren't evolved enough to really grasp a conversation about actions we take that benefit one but hurt others. How can this be done responsibly with school children, without compromising respect for our nation's leaders? How do you take a subtle analysis of human nature and transfer it to a component of a 60-minute lesson that can be absorbed by individuals at different stages in their own moral reasoning. Would you say, "Thomas Jefferson was a great man, but he was also a bad man?" You could say the same thing about MLK Jr. if the stories of his womanizing and power plays are to be believed. But to what end? What if the lesson is not to present our historic figures as full human beings, but instead to focus on the good things they did - to give children a sense that they can do good things too?

I don't believe my American history teachers lied to me, and I also believe that American history is far more complicated than a recitation of facts and a presentation of black versus white arguments. Now, I am off to honor Dr. King for the good work he did. Because he did good work, in spite of the flaws in his character.

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