Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Don't simplify too much 

PiPress editor Mark Yost read a fifth-grade American history textbook, and he didn't enjoy it very much.

If you wonder why people today don't understand the Second Amendment and other important elements of American history, look no further than this textbook.

Not surprisingly, it takes the predictable left lane down history's highway. For instance, the Spanish are justifiably chastised for their treatment of the Incas and Aztecs, but there's no mention of virgins being thrown into volcanoes. If this textbook were your only source, you'd think the natives lived in an utter state of equanimity before the evil Europeans arrived.

Ditto for slavery. The text makes the argument that slavery existed for eons in Africa, but it wasn't that bad.

"In some parts of Africa slaves could rise to positions of honor and trust. After a time, they could be given their freedom."

Not so for America.

"Little by little, however, life for Africans in Europe and in the Americas began to change. One of the most important reasons for this change was that there were not enough workers in the Americas."

You can just see the seeds being sown in the young minds for future lessons discrediting capitalism and the widespread benefits of the Industrial Revolution.

Yost goes on to describe how biographies of important figures from the American Revolution are breezed by, or slanted by some weird anecdote like Thomas Paine being fired as a tax collector because he wanted a raise. And Yost complains that history is dry.

That's not news, of course, and writers of textbooks certainly try to spice up their books, which is one reason for finding anecdotes like the one about Paine. So I don't think anecdotes and dryness are the problem. The problem, from my perspective, is that the attempt to reduce the complexities of the Atlantic System to something that a fifth-grader can understand. Economic historians don't think plantation trade was decisive in creating the Industrial Revolution, but it certainly can be argued that it sped up development in the U.K. and north America. How do I get that point across to a ten-year-old? So I simplify it, and in the process I create this image of Africans in Europe and America being put in more dire circumstances so that rich whites could get more cotton. This allows liberal teachers -- or even those who just haven't learned and thought the issues through -- to bolster their complaints against industrialized economies and call for restitution, and to include their students in the crusade.

Alas, the problem is probably not going to go away by the presentation of evidence. The best one can do is a counterfactual exercise: "How much less would the U.S. and the U.K. have developed in the absence of the slave trade?" is not a question you can answer scientifically. And worse, focusing on it doesn't answer Ronald Reagan's question that Yost closes with:

In his farewell address, Ronald Reagan asked: "Are we doing a good enough job teaching our children what America is and what she represents in the long history of the world?"

Reading this textbook, it's clear that the answer is a resounding "no."