Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Elitist History is Uninformed History

Skimming through the Internet, I stumbled upon this essay by Warner Todd Huston lamenting the “fetishizing” of minority history. It’s a typical example of the genre – a swipe at Charles Beard that distorts the man’s work, an assertion that White Anglo Saxons are responsible for all that is good and true in our history, and the claim that “PC revisionists” are just out to dethrone the white man, out of spite, apparently.

What intrigues me though is the repeated claim that non-white history in the United States is a minor, superfluous topic (he even call it “minutiae”), that merely distracts students from the important stories and adds little to our understanding of U.S. history. Well, Mr. Huston, this is exactly why textbooks and educators need to emphasize minority history – to insure that people don’t come to hold such narrow and uninformed perspectives as yours.

Indians, Africans, Hispanics, and Asians did much more than “add flavors to the stew” – they shaped this country in fundamental ways though their struggles, their labor, their cultures and language and food. How different the history of this country would have been had the Indians not been here – would there even have been a Revolution if the colonists hadn’t been so resentful of the Proclamation Act of 1763 banning them from moving into Indian territory? How would the economy and culture of the South have developed without African slaves - would there have been a Civil War without slavery and the plantation economy? Would the cotton economy have developed at all without those slaves? And what would I be eating if West African cuisine had never entered the South? What about the Southwest – what would it look like today if the Spanish had not founded San Francisco and Santa Fe?

The belief that only “Anglo-Saxons” made significant contributions to the history of this country is highly myopic. It’s also based on a very old-fashioned “kings and queens” kind of history, where only leading elites are discussed and the teeming masses are ignored. It fits of course with modern conservativism, which is extraordinarily elitist in its viewpoint, but it is wildly inaccurate.

And one last thing – believe it or not, Mr. Huston, it is in fact possible to mention the dates of the Civil War and discuss the role of black troops – it's amazing how many topics you can cover in a semester!


binky said...

Wasn't the "kings and queens" history (and here I'm thinking of something like Tuchman's A Distant Mirror - sort of a necessity, due to the lack literacy and of record keeping about "common" people? And thus with the technological advances that made it possible to know others than the ruling class, history could then address all of (or at least more of) history? Why does it always have to be some kind of conspiracy to eradicate the white man? (Yes, I know, pesky facts.)

nm said...

A lot of non-elite history is done about the more distant past, too. Thrilling stuff. And, of course, the more you know about what was going on on the farms and in the towns, the more the things the kings and queens did makes sense.

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