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Remember your old U.S. history textbook from high school? I lack the gene a person needs to be fascinated by names and dates, so before my stint in history classes was ended, I thought I might crumble into dust as old book pages do. How could the authors make such diverse, courageous people sound so darned dull!
Now and then a talent like Ken Burns presents a documentary (such as PBS’s The Civil War) or a Hollywood film (such as Hidden Figures) or a Broadway show (such as Hamilton) that gives us a peek into the momentous events and dynamic personalities that were flattened, defanged, and grayed down for textbook use—if they appeared at all. Many fascinating, influential characters were edited out, for reasons only the authors, publishers, and school district censors would know. (“Protective” community groups hoping to manipulate the viewpoints of the youth often contribute to the decisions.)
No wonder Americans are woefully uninformed about their own background. Only the people who actually SEE unbiased documentaries or films or READ well-researched accounts have a chance to develop informed opinions. I once taught a college class in which not a single soul knew who Benjamin Franklin was, and they recognized George Washington only as a face on money. Many Americans also have no real concept of how our government is supposed to function with checks and balances between the three branches, so of course they aren’t worried about losing the safety valves within our democracy. Abraham Lincoln (a Republican) was quoted in Ken Burns’ The Civil War as saying, “As a nation of free men, we will live forever or die by suicide.” We have the means to murder our own country.
Speaking strictly for myself, I like to glimpse the people behind the famous names in history—Lyndon Johnson, Frederick Douglas, Eleanor Roosevelt, etc. In spite of the fact that I don’t generally like to read biographies, I do want to know the whole story behind the major events that led us to our present day. How will our present look once it’s a story told in schools? Don’t you wonder which names will rise close to legend out of the next several years—in a good way, I mean? We’re already seeing examples of individuals who dare to defy the powers to speak out, stand up, investigate, or to film reality. Will we meet people our grandchildren will remember as heroes? Will some of us be among them? Will certain people surprise us by helping to create a kinder, healthier world?
I don’t aspire to be a famous name in textbooks, but I do hope my grandchildren and, perhaps, their children speak of me as someone who lived with integrity and courage. Toward that end, I look for opportunities to bring light where there is shadow and love where there is fear. I look for other people who aspire to do the same. I want to support them.