Edward Kennedy or Billy Graham? Margaret Sanger or Phyllis Schlafly? Who is more important? In the war over education content, the facts of 6th grade Social Studies can take on more meaning than we remember, when we had to memorize the 50 states and their capitals.
Max Weber tells us that there is an utter and complete distinction between facts and values, but, hey man, we are in the postmodern era and have more updated, fun theories to turn our ears to. Jean-Francois Lyotard will pound down our throats the inability of narratives to cover all of the conflicting differences of reality, but he and Jacques Derrida and others also used Wittgenstein’s later concept of “language games” to show how stuck we are with our language and its effects on us – i.e. narrative in some sense. The Enlightenment was wrong to declare that you could step outside of thought to analyze thought, that you could step outside of conceptual thinking to analyze concepts.
So facts are tied to values in some way or another. In the realm of education, this reality starts to take on a new meaning, though. If the two cannot be distinguished, then teaching will necessarily instantiate a narrative, a worldview, and morals. This is exactly what is going on with the Texas Board of Education, where the New York Times Magazine reports on imbroglios at the battleground of textbook content. A good postmodernist might insist that what is passed on has more to do with the structures of language and the words that are used – but surely the fight over content itself is a battle for a ground of narrative that someone has to win. There is no neutral turf.
The Times Magazine article on the Texas Board depicts seven Christian fundamentalists imposing their muscle as boardmembers on the state curriculum. Hot topics include whether there is a necessary connection between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and what America was originally founded for. Underneath it all, the article insinuates, is a fight to impose a narrative of American greatness and Christian identity. The author’s muted condemnation puts him in a category of Derrida-lite: he is incredulous at the claim that there really is a unitary narrative to be told, but like Weber, seems to think there is a more objective way to approach education content.
If we can learn our lessons from pomo philosophy selectively, many of us conservatives will insist that there is no Derrida-Weber mix on this issue. The ground must be occupied by someone, and the education wars (like the culture wars) are a necessary byproduct. But does that justify teaching in public schools that “[the Founding Fathers] believed that the supernatural influence of the Spirit of God was needed to free us from ourselves so that we can care for our neighbors,” as one expert who aids the Texas board has argued?
One of the more vocal boardmembers is named Don McLeroy. He has argued, for example, against what he sees as meaningless modern children’s stories, in favor of older fairy tales. “We want stories with morals, no P.C. stories.” This quote, though, might as well be applied to his approach to the History curriculum, and not just Language Arts.
The question is what spirit, or explanation, or narrative, might legitimately be applied to connect two different points in history. Within the academic discipline itself, there has been an explicit debate between historical nominalists and the story-tellers since Sir Lewis Namier started applying a numbers-based approach to Parliamentary history in 1929. In education, this takes on an added element, since a narrative also works pedagogically for easy memorization and absorption of material. And this is also the moral tale, in which the story wraps in the listener as well. If George Washington was virtuous, you could be like him. If this country was founded as Christian, then it weighs on us to make sure it stays true.
In what sense does the past impel us anyway? As far as we are talking about the American Founding, it seems to be quite a great deal. Hannah Arendt noted in On Revolution how a founding is augmented by its successors. In that sense, we derive some of our group identity with reference to a past that is still us, and from which we are obliged to expand and preserve. Besides this sense of group cohesion, identity, and purpose, America has always been able to tell a story of a pure beginning. This virginal whiteness at the founding moment provides the perfect grounds (and rhetoric) of moral appeal for later reformers, who can talk about a pure beginning that has been corrupted. (And what Christian is not drawn into that language?)
But in all intellectual honesty, can the uses of narrative really justify it if it isn’t warranted? Even if a statement like, “The Founders intended to create a Christian nation” is plausible or historically arguable, is it fair to place it on the same level as “The American Constitution was the first written constitution in the western world”? (A more verifiable statement that still carries an implied moral weight.)
The concern we need to weigh here is whether the presentation of a plausible but unverifiable interpretation as a cold, hard fact, is an impedance/injustice in the learning process. One significant problem is that these are clearly our morals (and terms of interpretation) that are being applied to a past that may not have contained them. It is not that judgment is wrong, but it is a risky historical venture to explain the past in terms and concepts that the past would not have recognized itself. For example, to call the American revolution “conservative” is an awkward phrase, since “conservatism” did not take on anything close to a modern usage, at least popularly, until something like the 1830s. It is not wrong; it is just that we need to tread lightly.
The learning process, however, is one of learning, relearning, and re-relearning. No expert on, say, Locke has read him only once. Similarly, in morals as well as music as well as history, children learn first by rote, then by internalizing when they have begun to accumulate a storehouse of facts with which to think. They learn first by approximations of concepts, in simple terms, and then by carving out nuances.
This provides us with some early furniture for an argument for teaching unitary, or storied, history – regardless of whether there are such stories. However, in favor of such stories really existing in history, it should be enough to say that there are salient tropes and ideas in any time period, and it can certainly be shown that some particular stories, like the story of the faith decline of Edmund Gosse in the late 19th century, really paint a good picture of the things happening at large in society.
Bill O’Reilly had a fantastic interview with Jon Stewart a few weeks ago, in which Stewart alleged that Fox News dominates the ratings because they tell the “clearest narrative.” His implication was that many people are drawn to a clear story, rather than interpreting the facts for themselves. Fox News clearly does provide a strong narrative, noticed in the offhand comments proliferating among their anchors. This is inexcusable when providing an account of the news to adults, and can actually help us think about how narrative is presented to children. If it is done to shield them, with an assumption they will believe exactly as they’ve been taught when they later confront opposition, then it is either naïve or brainwashing. But children do not need to understand, initially, all points of view. If these are exposed gradually, over time, perspective will not quite die away, but it will gain the opportunity to strengthen.
The sole purpose of History is not just moral instruction. It is (also) a presentation of the world, a sociology spanning time. For this reason, history furnishes a fantastic opportunity for humans to explore our nature, our interactions, and our limits. It is not just a closed moral viewpoint, but realistically, history often challenges our viewpoints and forces us to think for ourselves. The long-term attempt to understand or reconcile oneself with history is part of an individual’s quest to internalize truth that is believed. A narrative can help in this process – not only in the beginning, but as we continue to ask what the salient ideas and relationships through time have been.
In this way, a narrative is a theory, with no clear beginning in either our available concepts or the facts available. Rather we simply work with what we have, until our stories line up with the world that exists. Are the crusading members of the Texas Board fighting a legitimate fight? Yes, but that doesn’t mean they are fighting it well.
Bryan Wandel works in government finance and has studied history, accounting, and religion. He is a member of the editorial board at Humane Pursuits. Bryan’s writing has appeared at Comment Magazine, First Things, and elsewhere.