Revisionism

Virginia teaches its schoolchildren an anti-patriotic version of history.

It turns out that Japanese nationalists have no monopoly on rewriting history for political purposes. It even happens closer to home. A friend who lives in one of the tony Virginia suburbs of Washington writes:

My kids’ elementary school textbooks all skipped the Civil War. To gain Virginia school board approval, they went straight from the 49ers to the cowboys.

My junior high schooler’s text is even more interesting. It covers the succession and details Confederate victories up to Fredericksburg. It then skips to Reconstruction. Not a word about Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Chattanooga, Atlanta, or the Wilderness. No explanation of how Confederate victories connect to Union military occupation. If the chapters weren’t numbered, I’d think one was missing.

There’s a case to be made for teaching children, especially young children, a version of history conducive to patriotic feeling, and letting them fill in some of the darker chapters later. That’s not just a nationalist idea; thinking that America and Americans generally do the right thing is one way of coming to the conclusion that doing the wrong thing — committing and abetting torture, for example — is un-American. The Howard Zinn version of American history — going from genocidal colonization to slavetrading and then to oppressing the working class at home and supporting tyranny abroad — in addition to being no more accurate than the sweetness-and-light version, is as likely, if taught to schoolchildren, to make them cynical partakers in evil as it is to make them the revolutionaries Zinn would like to turn out. A little sugar-coating for patriotic purposes, especially in the early grades, seems to me fully justified, though I would draw a sharp line between omission and fabrication.

But distorting Civil War history in a pro-Confederate direction has no such justification. Catering to the Southern version of victim-identity politics is obviously bad for national unity. Why are the core red states so damned unpatriotic?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com