The Eclectic One

…Because labels are a poor substitute for thinking

Affirmative action in history courses

Posted by Bill Nance on September 29, 2008

As you may or may not know, I’m somewhat of an historical enthusiast. One of the things I enjoy is finding out little details in great historical narratives which add color and depth to the greater story.

An excellent example of this was the story of Harriet Tubman, the heroic escaped slave who returned over and over again to lead other escaped slaves from slavery in the south to freedom in Canada. Learning about Tubman’s courageous actions (and that word courageous doesn’t do adequate justice to her actions) helped personalize for me the deprivations and horror of slavery. I get the same feeling when I read Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, or the diary Joseph Plumb Martin.

So last night when I heard a re-broadcast of the Boston University’s World of Ideas I was excited by the prospect of hearing about Agrippa Hull, a black Revolutionary War soldier who was also an orderly to General John Patterson and to also Tadeusz Kosciuszko, an important but little known Polish General who was in charge of building fortifications at West Point.

I wasn’t terribly interested however, in a lecture on the need for affirmative action in history courses.

While the content was interesting (particularly to a history buff), the over-riding narrative presented by UCLA Professor Gary Nash, was that America has “historical amnesia” when it comes to black Americans and he used Hull to illustrate his point. He went to great lengths to repeat, ad nauseum, how traditional history leaves out black men and women.

I beg to differ.

When I was in grammar school and junior high school in the late 60s and early 70s, we learned in detail about Tubman, Crispus Attucks, Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver, and about the participation of all-black regiments in the Civil War, among many others. Interestingly enough we learned not a thing about Martin Luther King, though I suppose the events were too recent to be included in textbooks. (My father, active in the civil rights movement from the 1950s, made sure this lack was addressed). We also learned nothing of substance about the participation of blacks in the world wars or the white-led race riots after the first World War which were designed to keep black soldiers “in their place.” Nor did we learn anything about the historic desegregation of the military ordered by Harry Truman. I consider these to be some glaring holes in my formal public school education.

But the holes which existed were hardly centered around the participation of black people in America. The holes left out vast swathes of important information; from the populist movement, to the progressive movement at the turn of the century to the facts and costs of the industrial revolution among many many others. Even our education about the Revolutionary Period was quite scant.

Students today receive far less historical education than I think is necessary to produce good citizens. That’s probably never going to change to a level to suit my standards, but frankly the elevation of selected persons to historical importance based solely upon the color of their skin or their gender does not help the situation.

The time allotted for history education in public schools is already shamefully small. To dilute this time with historical affirmative action does more harm than good.

I encourage anyone interested in history to take one or more courses in black studies or in Black-American history. I assure you there is a lot of content you never heard about in High School. But the same could be said of history in general.

I grow increasingly tired of claims that one group, whether it be blacks or women, have been excluded from the history books solely due to racism or sexism. There have certainly been both present in academia and public policy, to our collective shame. But the fact is that a society which reduced women to chattel and blacks to little better than slavery until fairly recently assured that few people of color or women were in any position to be particularly significant figures in the larger picture.

I am not saying they were less worthy or did nothing worthy of note. I am saying that they were able to acheive far less than white men, simply by virtue of the times in which they lived. Insisting on “equal time” in an already inadequte history education won’t change these facts.

Stop crying and face facts. People like Agrippa Hull are interesting folks. They illustrate a part of American society that receives little attention in typical history courses. But they are not important figures. Are they interesting? Certainly; But so was my great-great grandfather. And he isn’t worth including in public school textbooks either.

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