Things your history class got wrong

 “Every government tries to arrange the environment for its children that they shall grow up loyal supporters of its system. It cannot be otherwise.”

-Sir John Maynard

Schools aren’t just about teaching children how the world works. They are also about teaching children to be patriotic citizens. From saying the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, to posters of George Washington and Abe Lincoln on the walls, to learning songs like “God Bless America” and “The Fifty Nifty United States”, to high-school civics class, we all grew up surrounded by a message of patriotism and love for our country.

Every country does this, no matter where in the world you live. It is necessary for a country’s citizens to accept the authority and legitimacy of their government to keep things from sliding into chaos. Here in America, that means teaching children the value of democracy and telling them that our government serves us. Other countries teach things differently, but the goal is the same.

History classes are a part of this system. Some historical events are emphasized, others are glossed over or not mentioned at all, and sometimes, very rarely, we are taught stuff that is completely false. With the access to information we have nowadays, it isn’t that hard to find things that make you go, “Hey, wait a second. This isn’t what I learned in school.”

To be clear, I am not saying there is some grand conspiracy in the government to lie to us. I’m not big on grand conspiracy theories. Our teachers and history-book writers believe they are telling us is the truth. But they also have a tendency to nostalgify, to simplify, to take what they were taught as children at face value and regurgitate it with no critical thinking, to base how they analyze historical events on their preconceived beliefs, to be pressured by parents to teach certain subjects a certain way, and so on. The result of these natural human tendencies is that sometimes we get a skewed picture, such as:

1.       Queen Elizabeth I was a beloved, benevolent, enlightened ruler of England who succeeded her despotic sister, “Bloody Mary”.

The Truth: Pretty much the exact opposite.

Queen Mary was a popular figure. Much of that popularity came from her extremely popular mother, Catherine of Aragon, who was booted out by Henry VIII in favor of Anne Boleyn. Since the Roman Catholic Church wouldn’t recognize the divorce and remarriage Henry declared the creation of his own Church of England and imposed it on the people by force. If you asked most English people at the time, you would probably find that very few supported either of these decisions. They wanted Queen Catherine and the religion they were familiar with. Protestantism was essentially restricted to a minority in the educated clergy and nobility who would have had access to the writings of Martin Luther and John Calvin.

Mary also earned sympathy points for refusing to accept her parents’ divorce and consequent reports from her physician of “ill treatment”. A rebellion broke out in northern England to convince Henry to reconcile with Mary and put her back in the line of succession; it was suppressed and its leaders executed.

After Henry VIII died his son took over, but died young and childless. By law, the throne then passed to Lady Jane Grey, but Mary unilaterally declared herself queen, and demanded Parliament accept her. She began a march to London, where she was followed by a growing crowd. By the time she got there, the streets of London looked like a medieval Tahrir Square. Fearing a riot, the high-ranking members of Parliament arrested Jane Grey and agreed to accept Mary’s rule.

But wait, you say, didn’t she kill the Protestants by burning them at the stake? Isn’t that why she was called “Bloody Mary” and became the “Mary, Mary quite contrary” in the nursery rhyme?

Well, yes. The so-called Marian Persecutions claimed 284 lives. But remember that these would have been people in the clergy, nobility, and merchant classes who were devout Protestants in a country that wanted to return to the church in Rome. Those executed were convicted in a legal trial for heresy. Most of what we know about these executions comes from flagrantly biased pamphlets circulated by Protestants to enlist support for their cause.

Didn’t Mary go crazy before she died? This also is a myth from misunderstanding. She thought she was pregnant because her periods stopped, but no child was born. Doctors today suspect she had some sort of uterine cancer that caused her death. Back then, of course, nobody could have known, so people assumed she was just nuts.

As for Queen Elizabeth, she was a totalitarian dictator. She reestablished the Church of England, and those who didn’t accept this were persecuted. As children, we were taught that Elizabeth sought a “middle way” between Catholicism and Puritanism, but the reality was that she was not compromising with the masses – only with factions in the elite, to maintain her power. Elizabeth set up a system of spies and secret police that monitored every aspect of her kingdom, and spread propaganda with a personality cult around her and her virginity.

Favorites of hers were granted legal monopolies over some economic sphere, leading to economic hardship. Things were worse in Ireland, where Elizabeth’s armies suppressed rebellions with “scorched-earth” tactics that led to mass starvation. Not exactly the actions of an enlightened or benevolent ruler, to say the least.

So what’s up with our history books?

Elizabeth was queen during the Spanish Armada and William Shakespeare’s career. Thus, people think of the Elizabethan years with nostalgia about how “good” things were for England then; taking the pro-Elizabeth and anti-Mary propaganda of the time at face value without critical thinking. Besides, her successor, King James of Scotland, was a Protestant who used the tools Elizabeth had built to rule England, and so was indebted to her and encouraged people to continue looking on her favorably. In the century that followed, Catholic-Protestant warfare would characterize the British Isles, and the Protestants ultimately won. To the victor belongs the right to write the history books.

Sources: Mainly Wikipedia and this series.

2.       Slavery was an exclusively Southern issue of black and white

The Truth: Slavery was not confined to any one region or race.

At the time of the American Revolution, there was slavery in all of the thirteen colonies. After the war, many northern states abolished slavery as a reward for those slaves who fought in the Continental Army against the British. Abolitionism didn’t really emerge until the 1830s, and even then it was supported only by a minority, and most of them wanted to abolish it gradually and peacefully. Many immigrants in places like New York actually supported slavery because free slaves moving north meant more competition for jobs.

Furthermore, not all slaves came from Africa. Shipping African slaves across the ocean was expensive; only the richest people could afford them. Learning about the Civil war one gets the impression that all Southern gentlemen owned slaves, but those notorious cotton plantations we all learned about were actually only owned by the wealthiest of the wealthy. Having all those slaves was a status symbol.

Meanwhile, your typical slave-owner more likely owned an Indian slave. In all of those wars between Native Americans and settlers, lots of prisoners of war were captured. Most of those would then be sold off into slavery. It was far cheaper than slaves shipped across the Atlantic. Some Native American tribes like the Navajo even got in on the action, raiding their neighbors for slaves to sell to the whites.

Yeah, that's right. Keep acting innocent.

There were even white “slaves” of a sort. If you were a poor English or Irish person who wanted to get to the New World, but were completely broke, there might be some guy who would trick you into signing a contract by saying he’d pay for your journey. Then, when you got here, you would discover that you had just signed yourself up for a huge debt with a tremendous interest rate. But you could pay it off… by working as an indentured servant for a number of years. Indentured servitude was very common in the early days of the Virginia colony, and was the main source of labor for the tobacco plantations for decades.

So what’s up with our history books?

Simplicity and self-esteem. People like simple answers to questions like, “Why did we fight the Civil War?” We also like to think their great-grand-pappy was a good guy, because it makes us feel better about ourselves. Thus, to Northerners, the idea that our ancestors were on the “right side of history” for being anti-racist and anti-slavery appeals to us. We like to think Sgt. Tommy Smith, our great-great grandpa, signed up on a crusade against those evil southern plantations that kept those poor black slaves in bondage. I’m sure that happened a lot, but statistically speaking the reality probably was more along the lines of Sgt. Tommy Smith was a draftee who didn’t want to be there and had no reason to want to kill his countrymen. Nostalgia always clouds our vision of history.

Sources: Mainly classes I have taken in college, including one on Native American culture that went in-depth on Indian slavery and a video we watched in a class on Journalism History about the abolitionist press.

3.       America won the Cold War

The Truth: Communism collapsed in on itself because it was unsustainable.

Imagine it is the Super Bowl. It’s the fourth quarter, and the score is tied. The two teams are an even match. Then, suddenly, one of the teams starts getting into a fight, as the quarterback and some of the linemen start throwing punches at each other. Simultaneously, half the defense squad suddenly falls over from heart attacks all at once. Various players decide they aren’t going to play anymore. The coach forfeits the game as his team falls apart.

That’s kind of how the Cold War ended.

Communism was based on the idea that people should “Give according to their abilities, and receive according to their needs.” It sounds like a good plan, but it forgets about a simple fact of human nature: laziness. People can be very lazy, and have to be motivated to do work. During Stalin’s five-year-plans, this wasn’t hard: people lived in constant fear of being shot by the secret police. That’s a motivator for you. In the 1960s, the tremendous successes of the Soviet space program motivated people because it made them optimistic about the future. Then the Americans made it to the moon first, and the Soviet space program just couldn’t top that. Space stations, space probes, and satellites aren’t nearly as exciting as feet touching alien soil.

This never happened.

By the 1970s, we were already seeing the socialist countries in an economic depression. People realized they would be provided with basic necessities no matter what they did, and didn’t have to work for them. So, they just didn’t work. A cut corner here, a day off there, and when enough of these built up there were massive shortages and what was produced was crap.

A popular joke was told about a woman who went into an empty store, with no product whatsoever on the shelves. “I see you have no cheese”, she told the employee. “No, this is the shop with no meat.” He replies, “The shop with no cheese is across the street.”

Here’s a clip from Top Gear showing how these factors affected the automotive industry in the USSR:

(Here’s part 2, for more ridiculousness)

By the end of the 1980s, these problems had become unbearable, the people rioted, the politicians fought, and Communism collapsed. When the Berlin Wall fell, it was because the East German police were too overwhelmed and too tired to stop the demonstrators, and the East German politicians saw the writing on the wall. The United States had done zilch.

So what’s up with our history books?

U-S-A! U-S-A! That’s what.

And don't you dare say we're not, you un-American pansy.

We Americans tend to have a biased view of things, seeing ourselves as the center of the world. I’m sure every other country is the same way. German, British, Russian, and Japanese textbooks will certainly present the tale of how the Cold War ended from their country’s perspective.

Besides, we had spent the better part of a half-century in a state of antagonism against the Soviets, so we were so exhilarated by their demise that we just celebrated without thinking. I mean, why not? People who lived through that time, i.e. our teachers, almost certainly felt like they had accomplished something just by watching the Soviet Union disintegrate. We felt like our ideology had won, that we had proven democracy and capitalism are better than Communism. I was only two when the Berlin Wall fell, so I have no memory of it happening. So I can look back dispassionately and say that proving this isn’t hard when the other ideology is stupid.

Source: A documentary I saw about the history of Communism and the jokes people told under its rule.

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3 Responses to Things your history class got wrong

  1. Pingback: Happy Birthday Cat Flag! « Cat Flag

  2. Pingback: More things your History Class got Wrong « Cat Flag

  3. Pingback: Even More Things Your History Class Got Wrong | Cat Flag

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