Culture Minus Context

A controversy currently taking place in the literary world reflects longstanding problems with the writing -- and teaching -- of history. 

In an eloquent and superbly reasoned piece in the January 6 issue of The New York Times, literary critic Michiko Kakutani takes issue with a sanitized edition of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn.  The volume  is the work of Professor Alan Gribben of Auburn University.  In an effort to spare "the reader from a racial slur that never seems to lose its vitriol," Professor Gribben has replaced the word "nigger" with "slave."

Taking the opposing view, Ms. Kakutani states:

Mr. Gribben's effort to update "Huckleberry Finn" (published in an edition with "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" by NewSouth Books), like Mr. Foley's assertion that it's an old book and "we're ready for new," ratifies the narcissistic contemporary belief that art should be inoffensive and accessible; that books, plays and poetry from other times and places should somehow be made to conform to today's democratic ideals. It's like the politically correct efforts in the '80s to exile great authors like Conrad and Melville from the canon because their work does not feature enough women or projects colonialist attitudes.

The point is well-taken.  To sanitize, modernize, or otherwise alter an author's text has the effect of removing the work from its original context.  This not only distorts the author's intention, but also results in a product with an extremely short shelf life.  Attempts to translate works such as the Bible into a modern idiom sound ridiculous in the space of a few short years.

The points that Ms. Kakutani makes with regard to the importance of context when applied to history mean as much or more than they do to literature.  In order to make their work more relevant to modern readers (and sell more books in the process), it has become common for so-called historians to project contemporary values, attitudes, and mores on historic personages and situations and to judge them accordingly.  Noted women become proto-feminists, and attitudes towards slavery, religion, sex, and other considerations are critiqued by what is socially current rather than by the much more difficult task of attempting to appreciate the world and values of the period in question. 

An exception to this, and an extremely positive trend, has occurred in the area of literary biography.  David S. Reynolds's exemplary volume, Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography (New York: Knopf, 1995), is less concerned with ultra-specific details of the writer's life than in exploring the multiple factors impacting the world in which he lived and their effect on his work.  As such, it is a treasure trove of information that extends beyond its subject and would intrigue anyone interested in the 19th century and the Civil War.

Filmmakers especially feel free to manipulate details, personalities, and dialogue, even when the work purports to be historically accurate.  Oliver Stone's JFK (1991) and Steven Spielberg's Amistad (1997) are two examples.  While screenwriters are justifiably required to create dialogue without the benefit of firsthand quotes, the use of current pop jargon not only destroys credibility, but quickly dates the production.

By far the most serious problems involving history occur in the elementary and high school systems, where political correctness has undermined both content and emphasis.  Traditionally, the student's first introduction to history was chronological in nature.  In many school systems, grades 4 through 8 were devoted to the teaching of American history ranging from the early European explorers to the modern era.  The high school curriculum concentrated on world history in the first two years and offered electives in specific subjects in grades 11 and 12.  Today, History has been replaced with Civics, a grab bag of historical and government-related subjects taken, for the most part, out of context.  There is an undue emphasis on popular culture, as well as the contributions of select minorities.  Many events are warped through the lens of political correctness, with no real attempt to understand why they occurred as they did.  Such a broken system cheats not only the individual student, but also the country as a whole.  We have created a population incapable of understanding and appreciating the contributions of those who came before and the progress that resulted in the benefits of freedom and prosperity. 

Lacking a basic understanding of the Enlightenment, the Divine Right Theory, and the British system of law, it is impossible to realize how revolutionary the American Revolution was and why the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution have effectively served so many for so long.  Without truly understanding the past, it is impossible to appreciate the fact that America has led the world -- not just in the progress of technology, but also in the advancement of ideas and ideals. 

We are fortunate in having many fine historians whose works present an accurate balance and view of events.  William J. Bennett's America the Last Best Hope (Nashville, Tennessee: Nelson Current, 2006) is a marvelous introductory study covering the scope of American history.  Victor David Hanson's books are an eclectic but always fascinating collection of studies on subjects ranging from the military in the ancient world to race relations in modern California.  Allan W. Eckert's Winning of America Series (Ashland, Kentucky: Jesse Stuart Foundation, 2002) and other books present a balanced and authoritative narrative, fair to both the early pioneers and their Native American allies and adversaries.

I hope that Ms. Kakutani's comments will ignite serious discussion in the academic community.  If the members thereof can agree that a politically correct re-rendering is unfair to Huck Finn, then perhaps they can at last extend a similar courtesy to Abe Lincoln, the Founders, and all of those whose contributions make America's true history such a fascinating and inspirational subject.  Perhaps then we can be spared from such comments as the recent statement by Washington Post staff writer Ezra Klein, who said, "The issue with the Constitution is that the text is confusing because it was written more than 100 years ago and what people believe it says differs from person to person[.]"  With a larger number of better-informed people, a newspaper such as the Washington Post could find more qualified staff writers than Mr. Klein.