Jewish Journal

A Disneyland Version of History

by  David A. Lehrer

July 14, 2011 | 11:30 am

The following appears in today’s Sacramento Bee. It relates to a bill that is pending on Governor Brown’s desk.

In mid-March many Californians smirked when the Texas Board of Education adopted a social studies curriculum that aimed to alter its textbooks to rewrite history to suit an ideological agenda.

Well no more smirking for me. Not only do we in California similarly impose a political agenda on our histories, we’ve been doing it for a long time.

The recent passage of Senate Bill 48 – mandating the inclusion of the contributions of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender Americans in instructional materials used in California – prompted research into the California Education Code sections that will be affected.

The California code, not unlike Texas, seeks to mold history’s narrative to suit political and social aims and betrays no subtlety in doing it. California’s policies unabashedly proclaim that among the purposes of our textbooks is “to develop a feeling of pride in his or her (student’s) heritage; develop a feeling of self-worth related to equality of opportunity.” Noble goals but wrongheaded means.

History is not a therapeutic device to serve the agenda of this or that group – to swell pride and self-worth – that’s Mommy and Daddy’s job. As the late historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. noted, “The use of history as therapy means the corruption of history as history.” SB 48 expands the Education Code mandates for “culturally and racially diverse groups” to include lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender folks and requires that they be “accurately portrayed,” an inarguably noble goal.

But within a few lines of extolling accuracy, SB 48 warns that no “textbook or other instructional materials shall contain any matter reflecting adversely” upon the persons portrayed. The state’s “standards” further warn that when ethnic or cultural groups are portrayed, their “customs … (must not be shown) as undesirable and must not reflect adversely on such differences.” Either historians portray history and the groups that have made history “accurately” or they mold what they write so as not to “reflect adversely” on the groups and their customs; they can’t do both. Our leaders are trying to craft a Disneyland version of history – a veritable Fantasyland – everything is going to be both accurate and positive.

Can the genocide in Rwanda, widespread use of female genital mutilation or forced marriages of children be presented without “reflecting adversely” on “differences” in customs? Can the Crusades, the Inquisition or the wars of the Middle Ages be taught without “reflecting adversely” on the religious groups involved? Impossible.

Maybe it’s time to stop this silliness and ask that our textbooks take a fresh, honest look at history; recount the roles of all relevant groups without political embellishment or distortion.

As Abraham Lincoln observed, “history is not history unless it is the truth.”

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