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Real history, real education, real merit - or why is "Forrest Gump" so popular?

In this recent dialogue about history and history education I am most struck by the fact that there is so much that I just don't understand. Why do so many people agree with the critics of social history? It's a little like the fact that I don't understand the incredible popularity of "Forrest Gump." The majority of my fellow citizens, the very people who apparently do not like my history, already have their own copy of the movie on video. When asked why the story appeals to them, I imagine they point to the joyful innocence and generosity of the central character, the loving determination of his mother, and the fairy tale quality of his adventures. They see a film that - unlike the history I offer - reinforces the Christian perspectives and "family values" of our culture, a new version of the "American Dream."

Skeptics, the group I belong to, the apparent minority, find fault with all of the above and see the characters as stereotypes playing out a simplistic, anti-intellectual fantasy that mocks our educational, political and entrepreneurial processes and institutions. Perhaps I have overstated the pros and cons of the film. There can, of course, be less extreme reactions. But whether a fan or a skeptic, you do have to admit that the movie, for a new version of the "American Dream," is full of contradictions: Forrest Gump does not get the girl, and his son is another "Little Man Tate."

Are you having difficulty following my logic? I shall explain. You see I had tears in my eyes with everyone else when Forrest woke up to find Jenny gone and again when Forrest took such delight in his very intelligent little boy. But these touching shifts in the plot contradict the apparent message of the film. If Jenny left him, what happened to the rewards Forrest should have earned for his good Christian heart and lifetime of loyalty? And weren't we supposed to applaud our American hero's success despite his lack of intelligence by traditional measurements? Forrest was "special." If so, what happened to the "anti-intellectualism" of the film if the happy ending is Forrest's discovery that he has a brilliant son? Did I go dewy-eyed over the wrong turns of events? And then there are the biggest contradictions of all, the basic "mantras" of the film. Just how does "you make your own destiny, Forrest" reconcile with the serendipitous nature of "Life is just a box of chocolates"?

I guess my confusion about the film centers on those two sentences. They actually sound familiar; statements of underlying values, however contradictory, that perhaps explain why the film speaks to so many people. As a good social historian, I want to know what they signify. What do people in the United States hear in those words that they find so appealing, so "real"? To be more specific, after nearly thirty years as an educator and historian, how can those sentences help me better understand popular assaults on so much of what I value in my work, and so much that I believe about teaching and writing history? For it seems to me that the people who like the movie are the same outraged citizens who call in to talk radio shows and write angry "My Turn" pieces in Newsweek. They are the same grassroots opposition who support the conservative attacks on social history.

To appreciate my views on the current debates you need to know that I come to my liberal/educational reformer/feminist social history perspective from very traditional and privileged beginnings - beginnings that probably mirror those of the academic and government leaders who so harshly criticize what I do. The California public system, a private girl's school in New York, and an elite women's college gave me an education that would have delighted William J. Bennett, Diane Ravitch, Chester E. Finn Jr., and Lynne V. Cheney. Father Serra was a hero to us and to his mission Indians; the fourth grade trip to the Los Angeles County Museum showed an upright Tyrranosaurus Rex; Latin was a required subject; and I had parts in Shakespeare's Richard II and Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis in high school. A very traditional philosophy course and the classics of eighteenth-century English literature (with no concessions to "other" voices) rounded out my college years. Although a graduate student at Columbia in 1968-69, I have almost no recollection of the protests and finished off my master's essay in British Constitutional History without ever joining an anti-Vietnam rally.

It never occurred to me in those years that I was immersed in "the canon" because I could not have conceived of anything else. Not only would I have "passed" in the terms described by Peter N. Stearns, but I would also have qualified to the core. It was teaching first in secondary schools and then at the university level that occasioned my initial questions about my privileged conservative education and led to my reassessment of the 1950's and early 60's model of "the canon" and traditional teaching methods.

Ironically, "Forrest Gump" confirms none - as far as I can see - of the educational ideas of the conservatives who now command media attention with their calls for "the classics," and the good old days of recitation, frequent tests, and preferential treatment for the gifted. Instead, the movie affirms many of the initiatives that liberal educational reformers have advocated and implemented. For example, Forrest's education is a clear demonstration of "mainstreaming." Even more subversive, Forrest proves that "proper" values can be learned and "real" education gained by a boy from a single-parent household, in regular classrooms, without benefit of any knowledge of the literary or historical "greats."

And then, for reasons that I find hard to explain, no one has yet made it clear to those outside the academy that this whole concept of "the canon" is flawed. The Latin Americanist, Florencia E. Mallon, in an AHR Forum on the post-colonial critiques known as "Subaltern Studies," in sympathy with the confusion about heroes and what is and is not "real" history, asked what are we to do when "our most important and inspirational narratives have come undone?"(1) She is referring to what Lynn Hunt, Joyce Appleby and Margaret C. Jacob describe as the loss of a "shared consensus" about what constitutes "real" history and I would add, "real" education.(2) In short, the loss of "the canon."

But all historians know that there have been lost "canons" before. Just reading through even the old-fashioned "dead white males" textbooks for Western Civ reveals many successful challenges to "the canon." The twelfth-century Renaissance reconciling classical reason with Catholic dogma was just the most literal example. On numerous other occasions the learned and the populace challenged the accepted beliefs of their day: fifteenth and sixteenth-century Humanism with its rediscovery of texts from its own and other cultures; the battle of the "ancients and the modems" played out in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; the vigorous and unforgiving application of scientific methods to the humanities in the nineteenth century. Each set of events brought dramatic changes in first one canon and then another.

I wonder, was there ever that much uniformity in our schools? I doubt it. Even when we had McGuffey's readers and the Dick and Jane series, there were endless variations in educational programs. Remember that the College Boards were originally instituted just because there was so much variation even at the high school level across the disciplines and in college admissions. Before we applaud or bemoan the loss of consensus, we need to be clearer on what "real" education across the fifty states was like. There was not even broad agreement on secondary school history education - one year of US history, one of European and so on - until the American Historical Association issued some guidelines early in the twentieth century.

Rather than confirming some underlying consensus, state regulations have tried to force a semblance of uniformity just because the tendency to diversity is so strong. The state boards of education requirements may occasion reform or retrenchment, but the cause of the interventions is the same, a response to specificity. Demands for local control of the classroom right down to the community level have always been part of public education. They did not originate in the 1960s and 70s, they increased. In many parts of the country we elect our local school boards, so intent are we, not on some universal set curriculum but on making sure that our own children learn specific subjects in specific ways. Now, it just has a new name, "school-based management." In short, there never has been the fixed canon, the narrow choice of inspirational narratives, nor the kind of "Golden Age" of consensus that seems so popular today. More often diversity of programs has been defended as fiercely as standardization, much to the discomfiture of history textbook publishers.

Appearances may have been deceiving but not for the reasons usually given. Having taught in both high school and college, I imagine now that this assumption of a canon and consensus has more to do with university curricula than with history and "social studies" at the primary and secondary levels. The Standards that so anger Lynne V. Cheney and other conservative leaders because of their "non-Western," social history emphasis were the ones written by a broad coalition of teachers and scholars from every level of US education. In contrast, the original version with its elite white, Western focus was largely the work of college faculty.

Over the last thirty years, history curricula outside the academy have broadened both because and in spite of state and local initiatives. There's more "social history" out there than the textbooks alone would indicate, and we have been more successful at offering alternative "inspirational narratives" than Mallon suggests.(3) As a high school teacher I had to change my US history classses first with the inclusion of so many other voices and peoples: African American narratives; ethnic narratives; and the first Euro-American women's voices. Then my Western Civ classes at Rutgers lost their neat dynastic chronology as I had to accommodate peasants' revolts, workers' manifestos, and the agency of colonialized peoples. The process of rethinking and relearning continued after I "discovered" women's history and world history on my own. It still amazes me how for so many years one could simply fail to notice how much of history had been omitted. All that has changed. The arguments now are more about taking out than wedging in. Even the most respected conservative scholars like Gertrude Himmelfarb acknowledge that they are telling one, albeit what they see as the most important, part of history and not another.

The government and major educational foundations have, since the late 60s, assisted in this endeavor. They have funded public and private initiatives at the state, city and school district level for changes in everything from high school AP European history to fifth-grade social studies. The Philadelphia High School-College Collaborative in world history for 1993-95,(4) the Bradley Commission and the evolution of the California Social Studies program, the NEH funded-National History Standards, the College Board Pacesetter Program, are but a few of the most recent examples. The idea of "consensus" or of "national standards" in the long history of US primary and secondary education is the aberration; diversity of every variety is the "norm."

Nor is the criticism original or new. The most recent version originated over ten years ago as a defense of history with articles like Diane Ravitch's "The Precarious State of History" from the spring 1985 American Education and Paul Gagnon's "Why Study History" in the November 1988 Atlantic. Their criticisms, in fact, and their political friendships led to the Congressional legislation for standards and to the NEH funding to write the ones for history.(5) The irony is that they now do not approve of what was produced under their leadership.

In their insistence on the need for the National Standards, Ravitch and Gagnon popularized the term, "historical literacy." By that phrase they meant knowledge of a set body of historical facts and interpretations of those facts. For example, students should know and admire Thomas Alva Edison. Social history, they argued, almost by definition, undermines this attempt to give our children a "real" education. For by this term, "historical literacy," Ravitch, Gagnon and the rest of the leading critical spokesmen and women do not mean "good" history, or the "best" history. No, they mean "real" history, as opposed to whatever it is that I write and teach. They describe all other representations and perspectives as distortions, as if we could see only one color in a prism and then made that the only "real" color the prism had produced.

This myopia surprises me. Particularly, as ten years ago I would have argued that the majority of historians had accepted and would disseminate the radical view of history: that it is more questions than answers; that these questions have many possible ways of approach and resolution. I believed that scholars had rejected the idea of a fixed lexicon of facts. Instead we would describe a multiplicity of events that must be arranged in a sequence. This process involves choices and thus, by definition, has a subjective quality. Historians have rules for making those choices, rules of evidence and logic, that make one narrative more "true" than another. Probably "real" history is more individual than we usually admit; what is familiar, what I remember. At base, it may be very much as the leader of the Cree Nation explained when called to testify before a Canadian government agency investigating the impact of a hydroelectric project on his peoples' ancestral lands. "I cannot tell the truth, I can only tell what I know."(6)

Further, given the multiplicity of sources of information available to students, I would have assumed that the role of the educator was to train students not just in some set content, but in the process and the rules by which one content is validated over another. I continue to believe that is my job. We are bombarded with content, with "Edison-type" facts in newspapers and magazines, by TV news channels that never stop to show test patterns, talk-radio, documentaries, docudramas, and this leaves out the Internet and all the resources available on CD-Rom. When I teach world history to a class today I can, in theory, draw on more knowledge than has ever been available to instructors. But, even so, I know that if I ask my students to locate Rwanda just when news of atrocities fill the media, most will look blank. It's as if they have content "overload," and filter out specific information like the white noise of their walkmen.

Queried about the kind of education they want, students here in southwestern Ohio think in terms of "job-training" and major in business and accounting. Our president concurs and wants department chairs to explain how humanities courses are "job-related." Students sign up for my introductory world history class because of university-wide requirements, or because they've been told it will be useful for careers in international marketing. Many dislike formulating their own views of events and complain if there's more discussion than lecture.

But if I acquiesce, teach only facts at them, I will do them a disservice. When students learn only content, they have no framework for what they remember, no context for the multiplicity of events. I once heard some very successful young New York bankers talk with enthusiasm about the changes in Eastern Europe. Their information came from friends, from newspapers, from men in their profession that they respected. For sophisticated elite members of our society, they had a simplistic view of the events. They just accepted the changes as a natural turn to "democracy." They seemed unaware of the role of the Soviet Union, the local Communist parties, the impending economic unification of Western Europe. They never asked any questions about why it happened then, why it was these and not other dissident groups that had succeeded. A focus on content alone makes for uncritical readers, viewers and listeners, and not for better informed, thoughtful, independent citizens.

Ironically, the best evidence for this comes from the leading critics of social history, many of whom studied with people like me. When the Texas billionaire, Lee Bass, withdrew his $20 million donation to endow a traditional Western Civ course, he proved how well we have succeeded. Educated at Yale by scholars he now considers 60s radicals turned into professors, Bass freely went on to reject that education. He chose instead a conservative view of history and a conservative approach to teaching that he had never experienced.(7) What's difficult for me and so many other liberals to accept, is that given these critical skills, this ability to process and give context to information, these former students of ours do not necessarily come to the same conclusions about either history or teaching.

Perhaps most disheartening, we seem to have been so successful in our emphasis on social history that members of the elite like Bass feel victimized, like some new category of "the other." And, sadly, too many of "the others" that we sought to empower with history identify with the elite and not with the more "politically correct" models of success we presented in our alternative narratives. Pundits of TV and talk radio shows reenforce these tendencies. They often tell us that "real" merit should be the only criteria for success, thus implying that the elite won their places in our society in an open competition. As evidence, they tell horror stories about affirmative action "injustices," about "real" merit denied, that are just as memorable as those they tell about "what Johnny doesn't know." Listeners and viewers remember their horror stories and barely notice our equivalent tales. For example, no matter how eloquently I speak of women's history and present the example of my own life, my classes appear embarrassed for me when I tell them that I was an "affirmative action hire." I must admit we can be our own worst enemy. The recent exchange on the subject in Academe, the AAUP magazine, makes the arguments of the critic sound like common sense and those of the supporter, pedantic.(8)

Somehow we have not succeeded in making the "others" sound "inspirational." We have not convinced our students that the subjects of our history can be models for them, models of groups and individuals who overcame disadvantages that never plagued the elite of our society. Or, is the problem that believing in "affirmative action" forces one to doubt the reality of "equal opportunity"? A society in which neither race, nor sex, nor class, nor sexual preference, nor ethnic origin hold back the intellectually gifted - the "career open to talents" of the French Revolution - is a much nicer place to imagine than the one I have lived in. But what happens then to the American dream world of "Forrest Gump"? Would he be considered a person of "real" merit making his own destiny, or a pure-hearted soul with his box of mixed chocolates, fortunate despite his disability?

And given all of these contradictions and questions, how will I counter the attacks and protect "social history"? Like Peter N. Steams, I have no desire to "dig my heels in." I know that as a group we must be vocal and clear. For even in our disagreements we model more of what we preach than our critics. Yet, I am not as pessimistic as he. I do believe we have made more progress than we give ourselves credit for. As I explained, social history is in the classrooms and the textbooks, however clumsy the integration. Textbook publishers seek authors who will include more not less in their Western Civ offerings. World history has become a required subject state-wide in a number of parts of the US and the single required introductory history course in many small four-year and community colleges. Social history as told by Ken Burns is a "hit" on TV. Studs Terkel's books sell. We must aid and encourage these initiatives whenever possible.

We also need to see ourselves as others see us and recast those images in a positive rather than a negative way. Somehow we have come to symbolize "risk." We represent unfamiliar challenges, changes without apparent boundaries or definition. To a William J. Bennett and a Lynne V. Cheney, the differences we turn into books and curricula portend chaos, not diversity. We must reclaim these words, take back the positive meanings they used to have. Once upon a time "risk," "challenge," "change," "diversity," were the common descriptors of the American hero and heroine. Thomas Alva Edison with his unorthodox ways exemplified them all. So does "Forest Gump." Ironically, there may be much in the movie that social historians can be grateful for.(9) In many ways he idealizes what we teach and write: Forrest Gump, the simple, poor, but earnest young man who in wandering through his own life participates in the great events of his era.

But if this is what the film signifies, why do the people who like the movie not like my history? Perhaps I am not confused at all. Perhaps I have understood. There simply are irreconcilable contradictions in the film and in our culture's attitudes toward history, education and merit. If this is so, our best defense of social history, our great strength as teachers and scholars, remains our ability to point out those contradictions.

And "that's all I have to say about that."

Department of History Oxford, OH 45056


1. Florencia E. Mallon, "The Promise and Dilemma of Subaltern Studies: Perspectives from Latin American History," AHR Forum, American Historical Review 99 (5) (December 1994): 1491.

2. See their Telling the Truth About History (New York, 1994).

3. This is also true for teaching methods in history. What the Bradley Commission and the writers of the National Standards call "habits of mind," Edward Fenton and the Educational Development Corporation called "the inquiry method" way back in the late 1960s.

4. AHA Perspectives 33(4) (April 1995): 16-17.

5. Lynne V. Cheney first gave interviews in the fall of 1987 on NEH-sponsored history and literature testing of 8,000 17-year olds and the poor results they got.

6. As quoted in Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York, 1973), p. 7.

7. This idea comes from Jerry Adler and Nina Archer Biddle, "The Fall of Western Civ," Newsweek CXXV (13) (27 March 1995): 59.

8. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, an historian at Emory, and Larry Scanlon, a literary critic from Rutgers, Academe 81 (3) (May/June 1995): 8-15.

9. As one of my colleagues, Susan Eacker, suggested in our discussion of these questions, perhaps Forrest Gump should be designated the social history "poster child."
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Title Annotation:Special Issue: Social History and the American Political Climate - Problems and Strategies
Author:Zinsser, Judith P.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Date:Feb 5, 1996
Previous Article:Reflections on the African American experience, social history, and the resurgence of conservatism in American society.
Next Article:The best of times, the worst of times.

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