My sister is currently in 5th grade and learning about the Revolutionary War. While helping her study, I was amazed to discover that she is learning more than I ever learned in her grade. All I could remember about my elementary education was the glory of the revolution, the importance of July 4th, and “give me liberty or give me death!” Upon further inspection, I discovered I did learn the same material – in fact, she was using the same edition of the textbook that I had used, copyright 1999.
As a college student majoring in History, my first glance over her textbook caught some incorrect statements, mostly in the form of generalizations. But I also noticed that while the lessons that my sister was learning were true, they were far from the whole and entire truth. What she was learning, I realized, was patriotism. The lessons dwelled on the revolutionary spirit, how the colonies pulled together and how they overcame one clear enemy to create a just and equal republic. The textbook meant to convey an emotion, with history as the medium.
In college and even some high school history classes, the focus shifts from patriotism to evolution. While it may seem odd to use a scientific term to describe history, this is exactly what undergraduate students learn to investigate. Rather than seeing each event or time period individually, college history classes examine the change from one thing to another. What forces were present in society or the political sphere that could shift political parties? How did a group of colonies that had never felt more British than at the conclusion of the Seven Year’s War end up engulfed in a war with them a mere thirteen years later? How could our founding fathers pen a document revolutionary about equality when they were slaveholders themselves?
For some, this teaching seems to be almost anti-patriotic. Questioning the founding fathers in this way undermines all that they did and all that they accomplished, right? In my experience, there is always a moment in a history undergrad’s life when they realize that all they had originally thought was true about history has holes in it, or perhaps is even completely false. Undergrads can feel doubt, confusion, or pessimism about America. But pulling through that initial doubt, it becomes clear that these holes were patched up in your original education to teach patriotism. If you were taught that Jefferson founded the nation, penning sections on overthrowing the figurative slavery of King George and in the next minute that he had slaves and even slave children, the perhaps impact and value of the ideals that the Revolutionaries fought for would be undermined.
Here is where I think the true value of a history major is realized. My classes on everything from Greek history to the inclusion of Jackie Robinson in major league baseball may seem to be mere interest pieces outside of the classroom, but they have educated me in more than a collection of details about these time periods. My classes have taught me to evaluate change, and perhaps most crucially, understand perspective. In my opinion, this skill is invaluable. In order to have a conversation and understand where others are coming from, it is crucial to understand perspective.
For example, my classes on the American Revolution have forced me to re-examine those same patriotic lessons that my sister is currently learning in history class. However, while the complete truth may have clouded the picture, the ideals of the Revolution still shine bright. My history classes have taught me to recognize the accomplishments in the context of the situation. The founding fathers did own slaves and yet were able to write revolutionary statements about equality. Perhaps without being fully conscious of what they were doing, the founding fathers created the framework necessary for a more equal state in the future.
This skill set that I have acquired through my history classes has allowed me not only to analyze change in the past, but also to analyze change in the present. I feel practiced in understanding where my peers are coming from. If someone has a different view than me, my first instinct is to try to understand his or her position rather than to change it. This strategy allows for better conversation and debate, which are the roots of compromise and progress.
Paging through my sister’s textbook again, I come to a page describing the many compromises necessary to pass the Constitution. This helps to reassure me that though her textbook may be blurring some of the details, it is passing along the key of any successful historical figure: compromise and understanding are crucial to generating change. The Revolution teaches us not a stagnant patriotism, but a patriotism that allows growth and new perspectives in an ever-changing nation.
Maren is a junior double majoring in History and Geography with a minor in Environmental Studies. She currently works for the History Department at UW and this summer will be interning with the Natural Heritage Land Trust. She plans to attend graduate school to pursue a career in historical site and land management.