Monday, March 23, 2009

Is Obama history book edit in vain?

Back when I was a history student at Illinois Wesleyan University in the mid-1980s, I took a course sequence that was meant to give us a thorough take on U.S. history. I still remember the last day of the course just before final exams.

On that day, our final lecture for U.S. history was about the conditions of the late 1970s that led the country to lose faith in Jimmy Carter and quit thinking of Ronald Reagan as some sort of right-wing nut along the lines of Barry Goldwater. In short, on that day in the spring of 1985, Reagan was elected president.

I RECALL THE moment because the professor, Jerry Israel, concluded his lecture by making a joke about how he had actually managed to “complete the course.” Unlike some students who joke that their history courses don’t make it much past the Second World War because the academic year runs out, ours made it up to the (then) current president.

“I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to do this,” the professor told us – his point being that the amount of time in a semester made 1980 about as current as he could ever get, but future events would become history that ought to be included.

For all I know, there is a generation of current students who get taught about the coming of Reagan-ism, but don’t much get into what was accomplished during those years. Let alone anything that happened in the past couple of decades.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of this moment from my lackluster academic career (anybody who knew me in college probably remembers me as the guy more concerned with covering a story for some publication rather than getting straight A’s in all my courses) when I learned that the publishers of history books these days are going to special efforts to ensure that the new editions of U.S. history textbooks appearing in schools across the country this autumn WILL include the November 2008 election of Barack Obama as U.S. president.

ONE BOOK GOES so far as to take a photograph of the Election Night rally at Grant Park and caption it as, “An Historic Moment.”

The New York Times reported that U.S. history books currently published by McGraw-Hill will have an eight-page supplement added to them to account for the significance of Obama’s election as president on the culture of our country.

And textbooks published by CQ Press for use in college-level courses in history and political science are being amended to include accounts of the Obama campaign on our society.

Now I can’t help but wonder how effective such reprints (even though they strike me as being similar in spirit to a newspaper “replate” meant to get a few current details into print while things are still happening) will be in truly educating the public about what has happened.

BECAUSE THE SIMPLE fact is that we don’t really know the significance of the Obama presidency yet. Insofar as the campaign season of 2008, it was nice to see a majority of the electorate willing to put aside racial preferences that in the past have been exclusively for white men to give the one-time senator (both state and U.S.) from Illinois a chance at working in the Oval Office.

But anything these last-minute edits will include is going to be superficial, if not downright trivial.

About the only lasting interest these particular editions of history textbooks will have in terms of serious scholarship is to look back upon them years (if not decades) from now, to see how close (or far) our initial impressions of Obama came to reality.

After all, there are a lot of things that come up during a campaign season that get played as “major” controversies (I would classify every word written about Bill Ayers in such a way) that in the light of history wind up being trivial tidbits best either ignored, or downplayed.

BUT MY BIGGEST interest in this matter is literally the time factor. I’m not exaggerating when I say most people of my generation took history courses that barely made it up to the Allied victory against Germany and Japan.

The fact that I had a college professor who made it up to all the way within five years of the current time (and up to the current president) seems like a near miracle.

It makes me wonder if those people who are determined to run down the political legacy of Bill Clinton’s presidency are wasting their time, because most teachers won’t have enough time in the academic year to get to the 1990s. Monica Lewinsky could literally fade away into obscurity.

And the idea of making it far enough to even consider Obama? Who’s kidding whom!

WHICH IS REALLY a shame. Because I always thought my history courses from school were the most interesting ones I took (even though my teachers until college usually managed to run through the material in a lackluster manner).

They are about our society, and us as a people. People who run down history as an academic subject are saying, in a sense, that we are boring subject material.

It is why I still get giggles when I recall someone I went to high school went who complained about having to take any history courses. “It would be okay if we could spend the semester studying the ‘60’s, but who really cares what happens before then?”

I suppose it would be cute to spend an entire summer studying the music of the Jefferson Airplane, trying to comprehend the affect of LSD on the masses and maybe even work in a day or two about civil rights and anti-war protesters.

THE ONLY QUESTION about that era that I have is how could the masses ever have been deluded enough to think “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” was a record worth buying in such large quantities that it became a hit?

But without a comprehension of what came before and how it fits into the overall character of our nation, such details are little more than trivia.

It is just as trivial as trying to fit in a couple of paragraphs about Obama into a history book and passing it off as serious scholarship. History courses ought to focus their attention on telling students about how this country got into the condition it was in so that an Obama election would be seen as something significant.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Publishers of history textbooks also plan to refer students to the websites ( they maintain as a way of providing more information about the Barack Obama presidency as it occurs.

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