Recently, on an Early American Studies listserv, there was an expression of concern over the creation of a new cartoon series backed by Michael Huckabee called “Learn our History.” Not unlike “America, The Story of Us” or projects completed and underway from the American Film Company , “Learn our History” is an attempt to create programs that will excite people about the history of the United States through telling the ‘true’ tale.
Now that’s always the rub isn’t it? The ‘true’ tale. One of the chief aspects of teaching, learning, and understanding history is that ‘truth’ is a questionable point. I would urge anyone interested in the question of ‘truth’ in history to read John Arnold’s History: A Very Short Introduction to better understand the slippery nature of such a quest. The entire book is fantastic and addresses the work of historians and how history is examined, but the last chapter on Sojourner Truth is of particular interest to, you guessed it, the issue of ‘truth.’
In terms of how to deal with concerns over the production of visual media about historical issues, I would suggest that the best way to combat these types of issues is to get involved with the creative process. Reach out to producers of “Learn Our History” or The American Film Company (recently produced “The Conspirator”). By becoming involved in the making of these films and series, historians can make more of an impact on the finished product. Similarly, professional historians should become involved in their local area school boards and statewide departments of education. For too long, whether in Hollywood or in education, people who are experts in their disciplines have sat on the sidelines and not engaged with what’s being produced except in a reactive manner. Now, clearly, your suggestions might fall on deaf ears, but I think it’s worth a try. Failing at that effort, the creation of a company to produce rich historical works that are accurate and truly unbiased, would be in order. As an aside, I’m fairly certain that America’s youth don’t share an excitement for our nation’s past for an entirely different reason than the one suggested by Mr. Huckabee. As a secondary education coordinator in Western Massachusetts I’m out in public schools with some degree of frequency. Unfortunately, I see a lack of excitement borne out of lessons that are not innovative and that do not make connections with students’ interests – not because teachers are, as Huckabee suggests, “focusing on America’s faults.”
One of my recent students has said it best – “Frequently, when asked why American history is important, teachers respond that it is our legacy and we need to know where we have come from. However, teaching solely about the elites in history is hardly representative of the students in our classrooms today and doesn’t actually provide students with a history they can call their own. By addressing these issues in history from the lens of the oppressed, we are empowering students and enabling them to recognize the history they learn in their classrooms as “our history.” This is invaluable to students who have struggled to personalize history and the lessons it can offer them.” My thanks to William – I couldn’t have said it any more clearly.