Friday, 27 August 2010

Learning History in America

Learning history is a reflection of any society's current cultural, ideological, and political trends at any particular era. If we lived in Victorian England, we would not be exposed to the same interpretation of the aristocracy's role in society during the Tudor dynasty, for example, as we are today at a U.S. or European university. Curriculum is always revised to reflect societal trends and prevailing social values. The current trend in American historiography is that there are "many Americas" reflecting the country's heterogeneous cultural composition and evolving values. When I went to school in Greece in the 1960s, there was never any talk about the role of gays and lesbians in history, or of the Ottoman Empire's contributions to civilization, to mention two of many examples. Historical interpretations are a reflection of changing times. One hundred years from now, historians will not view the Cold War in the same manner as Acheson and Gromyko did. As a historian in the U.S., I find it disturbing that increasingly there is a lack of focus on substance, and more on style, superficialities, and appearances. Mass media reflect this trend as well. News is about style that makes people feel good, not substance which may be painful. T.S. Elliot's "Hollow Men" is just as appropriate today as when he wrote it. With apologies to many excellent education professors for generalizing, the "hollow trend" is a reflection of college courses in Education Departments that focus so much on methods, rather than content. Even when content is the focus, historical figures are rarely given a multi-dimensional character that best represents them. I agree with Professor Hilton that Stalin has been stereo-typed, as have Napoleon, Caeser Augustus, Mao, Kennedy, De Gaulle, and countless others. The reason is because superficial analysis is the easy, painless, and popular way of explaining complex multi-dimensional personalities. Regrettably, complex policies and events are explained in the same manner by many educators, journalists, and politicians. Was Nicolo Machiavelli, among many others, correct to argue that people judge by appearances whether in politics or business, etc.? Perhaps the existentialists are correct to argue that there may be an innate proclivity in human nature to reduce people, events, policies, etc. to simple terms that best reflects one's world-view of objectifying the other, and of making sense of the outside world in simple terms".

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