Mark K, while I was down in Australia a while back, they had a big Education Summit going on, and the then Prime Minister, the great John Howard, used a marvelous phrase to me about how they wanted to teach Oz history – as an “heroic national narrative”. We don’t do that. In fact, we don’t teach it as any kind of coherent narrative at all. We’ve taken Cromwell’s advice to his portraitist to paint him “warts and all”, and show our kids all but solely the warts — spreading disease to Native Americans, enslaving blacks, interning the Japanese. Any non-wart stuff is mostly invented out of whole cloth: the US Constitution has its good points but they all come from the Iroquois, and the first Thanksgiving is some kind of proto-Communist celebration of collective farming.
A few months back, my little boy came home from Second Grade and said to me, “Guess what we learned today?” I said: “Rosa Parks.” He said: “How did you know that?” I said: “Because it’s always Rosa Parks.” And, if you don’t learn it in the context of any broader historical narrative, it’s just a story about municipal transit seating arrangements.
Teaching only the warts is a terrible thing to do to young children. At its extreme it leads to those British Taliban captured on the battlefields of Afghanistan: Subjects of the Crown who’d been raised in English schools and taught only that the country to which they owed their nominal allegiance was the source of all the racism, oppression, colonialism, and imperialism in the world. Why be surprised that a proportion of the alumni of such a system would look elsewhere for their sense of identity?
But, even in its more benign form, warts-only education leaves a big hole where one’s cultural inheritance should be.