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of the historian,
to know the elements
of the present by understanding what come into present from the post, for the present is simply developing past present.
. The goal of the historian is
We see things not as they ore
The Disappearance of the Recent Past
If we do not speak of it, others
surely rewrite the
of the moss groves will
script. Each of the body bogs,
contents abracadabraed into a
be reopened and noble couse.
-George Swiers, Vietnam veteran I When
which properly belongs to the
is systematically withheld by those in power, people soon become ignorant of
of those who
incapable of determining
-Richard M. Nixon 2
as we are.
MANY AFRICAN SOCIETIES divide humans into three categories: those still alive on the earth. the sasha. and the zamani. The recently departed whose time on earth overlapped with people still here are the sasha. the living-dead. They are nor wholly dead, for they still live in the memories of the living, who can call them to mind, create their likeness in art. and bring them to life in anecdote. When the last person to know an ancestor dies, that ancestor leaves the sasha for the zamani. the dead. As generalized ancestors, the zamani are not forgotten but revered. Many, like George Washington or Clara Barton. can be recalled by name. But they are not living-dead. There is a difference. 4 Because we lack these Kiswahili terms, we rarely think about this distinction systematically, but we also make it. Consider how we read an account of an event we lived through. especially one in which we ourselves took part, whether a sporting event or the Persian Gulf War. We read pardy in a spirit of criticism. assessing what the authors got wrong as well as agreeing with and perhaps learning from what they got right. When we study the more distant past, we may also read critically. but now our primary mode is ingestive. Especially if we are reading for the first time about an event, we have little ground on which to stand and criticize what we read. Authors of American history textbooks appear all too aware of the sasha-of the fact that teachers. parents. and textbook adoption board members were alive in the recent past. They seem uncomfortable with it. Revering the zaman i-generalized ancestors-is more their style. By definition. the world of the sasha is controversial. because readers bring to it their own knowledge and understanding, which may not agree with what is written. Therefore. the less said about the recent past. the better. r examined how the ten narrative American histories in my sample cover the five decades leading up to the 19805. (l excluded the 19805 because DOWN THE MEMORY HOLE
some of the textbooks came out in that decade, so they could not be expected to cover it fully.) On average, the textbooks give 47 pages to the 1930s, 43.6 pages to the 1940s, and fewer than 35 pages to each later decade. Even the turbulent decade of the 1960s-including the civil rights movement, most of the Vietnam War, and the murders of Martin Luther King. Jr., Medgar Evers, Malcolm X. and John and Robert Kennedy-gets fewer than 35 pages. I used the qualifier nt1rrativ~ in the previous paragraph because the examination revealed a striking difference between the two inquiry text books and the narrative textbooks. Discowring Ammcan History and Th~ Am~rican Advfflturt', which consist largely of maps, illustrations. and extracts from primary sources, do not downplay the sasha. Indeed, their attention to the recent past is indicative of their authors' intention of making history relevant to current events and issues. Even these two textbooks' early chapters challenge students to apply what they learn to the present. Therefore, despite the fact that both of the books were published before the 19705 ended, they give more space to the 19605 and 1970s than do the ten narrative textbooks. Unfortunately, these textbooks have long since gone out of favor and print, and, as far as I know, no inquiry textbooks remain on the market. Their lack of contin ued commercial viability suggests that by slighting the recent past pub lishers of narrative textbooks are somehow meeting a need. Probably it is the need to avoid controversy. Avoiding the sasha surely does not meet students' needs. Textbook authors may work on the assumption that covering recent events thor oughly is unnecessary because students already know about them. Since textbook authors tend not to be young, however. what is sa.'iha for them is zamani to their students. As we college professors get older, we grow ever more astonished at what our undergraduates don't know about the recent past. I first be came aware of this phenomenon as the 1970s inexorably became the 1980s. Lecturing on the Vietnam War. I increasingly got blank looks. One in four, then one in two, and in the 1990s four in five first-year college students have not known the meaning of the four-letter words hawk and dov~. On the first day of class in 1989 I gave my students a quiz including the open-ended question. "Who fought in the war in Vietnam?" Almost a fourth of my students said the combatants were North and South Korea! I was stunned-to me this resembled answer ing "1957" to the question "When did the War of 1812 begin?" In faer, many recent high school graduates know more about the War of 1812 than about the Vietnam \Var.~
LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME
It makes little sense and surely does no good to blame the students. It can hardly be their fault. If our civic memories begin when we are about ten years old, then the last students to have any memory of the Vietnam War graduated from high school in the spring of 1983. The war is unknown territory to today's college undergraduates, who were not alive when it ended. So are the women's movement. Watergate, and the Carter presidency. Movies, novels, songs. and other elements of popular culture do treat the recent past, but these fuse fact and fiction, as any Rambo fan can attest,l' Students need information about the recent past from their high school American history courses. The recent past is, after all. the history with the most immediate impact upon our lives today. The notion that history courses should slight the sasha for the distant zamani is perverse. Comparing textbook coverage of the Vietnam War and the War of 1812 illuminates this perversion. The War of 1812 took place almost two centuries ago and killed maybe two thousand Americans. Nevertheless, high school history books devote the same quantitative coverage-nine pages-to the War of 1812 and the Vietnam War. One might argue, I suppose, that the War
of 1812 was so much more important than the Vietnam War that it
deserves as much space. Our textbooks make no such claim; most text , book authors don't know what to make of the War of 1812 and don't
claim any particular importance for it. Since the War of 1812 lasted only half as long as the Vietnam War, authors can treat it in far more detail. They enjoy the luxury of telling about individual battles and heroes in 1812. Land of Promis~, for in stance, devotes three paragraphs to a naval battle off Put-in-Bay Island in Lake Erie, which works out to one paragraph per hour of battle! Vietnam gets no such detail. Scant space is only part of the problem. Nine gripping analytic pages on the Vietnam War might prove more than adequate.7 We must ask what kind of coverage textbooks provide, beginning with the images they supply. Photographs have been part of the record of war in the United States since Matthew Brady's famous images of the Civil War. In Vietnam, television images joined still photos to shape the percep tions and sensibility of the American people. More than any other war in our history, the Vietnam War was distinguished by a series of images that seared themselves iO£o the public consciousness. I have asked dozens of adults old enough to have lived during the war to tell me what visual images they remember; the list of images they have supplied shows remarkable overlap. A short list includes these five spe cific images:8
DOWN THE MEMORY HOLE
a Buddhist monk sitting at a Saigan intersection immalating himself ta protest the South Vietnamese government; the little girl running naked down Highway 1, Aeeing a napalm attock; the national police chief executing a terrified man, suspected of being in the Viet Cong, with a pistol shot to the side of his head; the bodies in the ditch after the My Lai massacre; and Americans evacuating from a Saigon rooftop by helicapter, while desper ate Vietnamese try to climb aboard. The list might also include at least two generic images: B-52's with bombs streaming below them into the pock-marked countryside of Viet nam, and a ruined ciry such as Hue, nothing but ruhble in view. as American and South Vietnamese troops move in to retake it after the Tet offensive. Merely reading these short descriptions prompts most older Ameri cans to rememher the images in sharp detail. The emotions that accom panied them come back vividly as well. Of course, since the main American involvement in the war took place from 1965 to 1973. Ameri cans must have been at least thirry in 1993 to have these images in their sasha. Today's young people have little chance to see or recall these images unless their history books provide them.
Quang Duc. the first BuddhIst monk to set himself on fire 10 protest the policies of the Dinh Diem IAglme thaI the Unifed Stales supported in South Vietnam, shocked the S"ulh Vietnamese God the American Relole Ihe WGr several ,)Iher Vietnamese Gnd Of leosl one Ar)1eri,:on lollOl'Ced Ouang Duc 5 i"xomple. LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME
This little girl, Kim Phuc. ran screaming down Highway I, Fleeing from an accidental napalm attack on her Village by South Vietnamese airplanes. She had stripped off her burning clothing as she ran. The television footage and still photographs of her flight were among Ihe most searing of the war. The photograph violates two textbook labo05 at once, no textbook ever shows anyone naked and none shows such suffering, even ,n time of war.)
They don't. These photographs have gone down the memory hole, that chute to the furnace where embarrassing facts burn to a crisp in George Orwell's 1984. A single book, The American Pageant, includes one of these pictures: the police chief shooting the terrified man. In No other textbook reproduces any of them. The American Adventures con tains an image of our bombing Vietnam, but the photograph shows B-52's and hombs from below and gives no sense of any damage on the ground. The seven cited images are important examples of the primary materi als of the Vietnam War. Hawks might claim that these images exaggerate the aspects of the war they portray. However, the images have additional claims to historical significance: they made history, for they affected the way Americans thought about the war. Several of these photographs remain "among the most well-known images in the world even now [1991)," according to Patrick Hagopian. I I Leaving them out of history textbooks shortchanges today's readers. As a student of mine wrote, "To show a photograph of one naked girl crying after she has been napalmed changes the entire meaning of that war to a high school student." In Vietnam the U.S. dropped three times as many explosives as it DOWN THE MEMORY HOLE
tEFT: (n the My Lai masSQcre American combat troops murdered women, old men, and childlen. Ronald Haeberle's photographs, including Ihls one, whIch fan in life mClaa'Zln,e seared the massacre inlo the notion 5 consciousness and still oHect our cultUle. IJ Most Hollywood movies made about Vietnam include My Lol imagtHY; Platoon c..if.::r; a vivid example.
Ngu,en Ngoc loon, the notional chief of South Vietnam, casually shot this terrified man, suspected of being 0 Viet Cong sympathize( on a street in Saigon as on American photographer and television crew looked on This photograph many Ameflcans thor !helf side was not morally superiof to the communists. The IS 50 haunting thaI, years Ioter, I have only to cock fll)i firlgels lIke a gun and people who wei':: old to food newspapers lecal/the .::venl ond can describe it in ,valell lelevlsion III I C)68 5011'e de/Oil
droppc:d in all theaters of World War 11, even including our nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so textbook aurhors have many images of bomb damage to choose from. On the ground, after the Tet otfensive, in which Viet Cong Jnd Norrh Vietnamese troopS captured cities and towns allover South Vietnam. American and South Viemam ese troops shelled Hue. Ben Tre. Quang Tri, and O[her cities before moving in ro retake them. Nonetheless. not one textbook shows any damage done by our side. Of course, the authors and edirors of textbooks choose among thou sands of images of the Vietnam War. They might make ditferent selec tions and still do justice to the war. But at the very least they must show atrocities against the Viemamese civilian population. for these were a frequent and eVen inevitable part of this war withour front lines, in which our armed forces had only the foggiest nodon as to who was ally or opponem. Indeed. attacks on civilians were U.S. policy, as shown by Gen. William C. Westmoreland's characterization of civilian casualties: "It does deprive thl! enemy of the population, doesn't it?" 1.1 We evaluated LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME
29, 1975, rhis American helic0pler ,,\()eualed j.yc.pie from a The (ie"(1 do y fei! anJ rhe Ameh;an (and \/ie1no"k'sel
nightmale came to on end. Half of all AmeliCiJIl5 olive wele ,(Jungel than
ien Of not y.::t born wh'::fI ih,s WGS la"",n Thus hall know Iht),v()1
from movies and lextbooks
our progress by bodycoullts and drew free-tire wnes in which the entire civilian popularion was treated as the enemy. Such a srrategy inevirably led to war crimes. Thus My Lai was not a minor event, unworthy of inclusion in a nation's history, bur was important precisely because it was emblematic of much of what went wrong with the emire war in Viernam. My Lai was the most famous insrance of what John Kerry, tormerly of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, now a U.S. senator, called "not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command." Ap pearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 1971, Kerry said, "Over 150 honorably discharged and many very highly decorated veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia." He went on ro retell how American troops "had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, raped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cur otI' limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscem of Gen ghis Khan. shot car de and dogs tor fun, poisoned tood stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Viernam." All this was "in addition ro the normal ravage of war." l ' Any photograph of an AmeriDOWN THE MEMORY HOLE
The only photograph of troops in Triumph of the American Nation shows them surrounding PresidentJohnson when he visited the American base at Cam Ranh Bay during the war.
can soldier setting fire to a Vietnamese hootch (house), a common sight during the war, would get this point across, but no textbook uses any photograph of any wrongdoing by an American. Indeed, no book in cludes any photograph of any destruction, even of legitimate targets, caused by our side. Only Discovering Ammcan History, an inquiry text book. treats the My Lai massacre a.ll anything but an isolated incident. In addition to leaving students ignorant of the history of the war, the silence of other textbooks on this matter also makes the antiwar move ment incomprehensible. Two textbook authors. James West Davidson and Mark H. Lytle. are on record elsewhere as knowing ofthe imporranceofMy Lai. ~'The American strategy had atrocity built into it," Lytle said to me. Davidson and Lytle devote most of a chapter to the My Lai massacre in their book After the Fact. There they tell how news of the massacre stunned the United States. "One thing was certain," they write, "the encounter became a defining moment in the public's perception of the war." 16 Plainly they do not think high school students need to know about it. however, for their high school history textbook. The United States-A History ofthe Repub. lic. like seven other textbooks in my sample. never mentions My Lai. If textbooks omit all the important photographs of the Vietnam War, what images do they include? Uncontroversial shots, for the most part -servicemen on patrol. walking through swamps, or jumping from LIES MY TEACHIER TOLD ME
helicopters. Seven books show refugees or damage caused by the other side, but since such damage was usually less extensive than that caused by our bombardment, the pictures are not very dramatic. What about their prose? Sadly, textbook authors also leave Out all the memorable quotations of the era. Martin Luther King, Jr.• the first major leader to come out against the war, opposed it in his trademark cadences: "We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops.... We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men." 11 No textbook quotes King. Even more famous was the dissent of Mu hammad Ali, then the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Ali refused induction into the military, for which his title was stripped from him, and said, "No Viet Cong ever called me 'nigger.' " All twelve textbooks leave out that line too. After the Tet offensive, a U.S. army officer involved in retaking Ben Tre said, "It became necessary to destroy the town to save it." For millions of Americans, this statement summa rized America's impact on Vietnam. No textbook supplies it. 1ft Nor does any textbook quote John Kerry's plea for immediate withdrawal: "How do you ask a man to be the Ia.llt man to die for a mistake?" 19 Indeed. the entire antiwar movement becomes unintelligible because textbooks do not allow it to speak for itself. They exclude the antiwar songs, the chants-"Hell, no; we won't go!" and "Hey, hey. LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" -and, above all, the emotions. 10 Virtually the only people who get quoted are Presidents Johnson and Nixon. In a typical passage in The American Pageant, Nixon says, 'J\merica cannot-and will not-conceive all the plans, design all the programs, execute all the decisions, and undertake all the defense of the free nations of the world." The passage does not help [0 clarify the war or the opposition to it. Even Pageant's auxiliary reader quotes only Johnson and Nixon as pri mary sources on the Vietnam War-not a word from those who fought in or opposed it. Having excluded the sights, the sounds. and the feelings of the Viet nam era. textbook authors proceed to exclude the issues. Frances Fitz Gerald, who. in addition to America Revised. wrote Fire in the Lake. a fine book about Vietnam. called the textbooks she reviewed in 1979 "neither hawkish nor dovish on the war-they are simply evasive." She went on to say. "Since it is really quite hard to discuss the war and evade all the major issues. their Vietnam sections make remarkable reading." ~l To some degree, defining the issues is a matter of interpretation. and I would not want to fault textbooks for holding a different interpretation from my own. Perhaps we can agree that any reasonable treatment of the Vietnam War would discuss at least these six questions: DOWN THE MEMORY HOLE
Why did the United States hght in Vietnam?
What was the war like before the United States entered it? How did we
change it? How did the war change the United States? Why did on antiwar movement become so strong in the United States? What were its criticisms of the war in Vietnam? Were they right? Why did the United States lose the war? What lesson(s) should we take from the experience? Simply (0 list these questions is to recognize that each of them is still controversial. Take the first. Some people still argue that the United States fought in Vietnam to secure access to the country's valuable natural resources. Others claim that we fought to bring democracy to Vietnam's people. Perhaps more common are analyses of our internaJ politics: Democratic Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, having seen how Republicans castigated Truman for "losing" China, did not want to be seen as "losing" Vietnam. Another interpretation brings forth the dom ino theory: while we know now that Vietnam's communists are antago nists of China, we didn't then, and some leaders believed that if Vietnam "fell" to the communists, so would Thailand, Malaysia. Indonesia, and the Philippines. Yet another view is that America felt its prestige was on the line, so it did not want a defeat in Vietnam. lest Pax Americana be threatened in Africa. South America. or elsewhere in the world.12 Some conspiracy theorists go even further and claim that big business fo mented the war to help the economy. Other historians take a longer view. arguing that our intervention in Viemam derives from a cultural pattern of racism and imperialism that began with the first Indian war in Virginia in 1622. continued in the nineteenth century with "Manifest Destiny," and is now winding down in the "American century." They point out that GI's in Vietnam collected and displayed Vietnamese ears just as British colonists in North America collected and displayed Indian scalps.2 \ A finaJ view might be that there was no clear cause and certainly no dear purpose. that we blundered into the war because no subsequent administration had the courage to undo our 1946 mistake of opposing a popular independence movement. "The fundamental blunder with respect to Indochina was made after 1945," wrote Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. when "our Government allowed itself to be per suaded" by the French and British "(0 restore France's colonial position in Indochina."!4 Perhaps the seeds of America's tragic involvement with Vietnam were sown at Versailles in 1918, when Woodrow Wilson fuiled to hear Ho Chi Minh's plea for his country's independence. Perhaps they germiLIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME
nated when FDR's polk!, of not helping the french recolonize Southeast Asia after World War II terminated with his death. Since textbooks rarely suggest that the events of one period caused" events of the next. unsurprisingly. none of the textbooks I surveyed look before the 19';05 to explain the Vietnam War. Within the 1950s and 1960s, the historical evidence tor some of these conAicting interpretations is much weaker than for others, although I will not choose sides here. =, Textbook authors need not choose sides. either. They could present several interpretations. along with an over view of the historical support for each. and invite students to come to their own conclusions. Such challenges are not the textbook authors' style, however. They seem compelled to present the "right" answer to all questions, even unresoked controversies. So which interpretation do they choose? None of the above! Most textbooks simply dodge the issue. Here is a representative analysis, from American Adl1entures: "Later in the 1950's. war broke OUt in South Vietnam. This time the United States gave aid to the South Vietnamese government." "War broke ollt"-what could be simpler! Adventures devotes four pages to discussing why we got into the War of 1812 but just these twO sentences to why we fought in Vietnam. One reason textbook authors tiptoe through the recent past, evading all the main issues. may be that they do not feel they have the expertise to deal with it. None of the fortY-five authors of the twelve textbook.. in my sample is an expert on the recent past, so fur as I can tell. Of course. even textbooks written by several authors necessarily treat many subjects on which their authors cannot be expert. For topics in the zamani. however, textbook authors can use historical perspective as a shield. By writing in an omniscient boring tone about events in the zamani. au thors imply that a single historic truth exists, upon which historians have agreed and which they now teach and students now should memo rize. Such writing implies that historical perspective grows ever more accurate with the passage of time. blessing today's textbook authors with cumulative historical insight. They cannot use historical perspective to defend their treatment of events in the sasha, however. Without histori cal perspective. textbook authors appear naked; no particular qualifica tion gives them the right to narrate recent events with the same Olympian detachment with which they declaim on events in the zamani. Indeed. historical perspective implicitly justifies neglecting the sasha. Historians tell us how we are too close to whichever recent event we are discussing to be able to step back and view it in context. As new material becomes available in archives, they claim. or as the consequences of actions become clearer over rime, we can reach a more "objective" assessDOWN THE MEMORY HOLE
memo The passage of time does not in itself provide perspective, how ever. Information is lost as well as gained over time. At this point we might usefully recall a few changes in perspective noted in earlier chapters. Woodrow Wilson enjoys a dramatically more positive ranking now than in 1920. The improvement did not derive from the discovery of fresh information on his administration but from the ideological needs of the late 19405 and early 1950s. In those years white historians would hardly fault Wilson for segregating the federal government, because no consensus held that racial segregation was wrong. The foremost public issue of that postwar era was not race relations but the containment of communism. During the Cold War our government operated as it did under Wilson. with semideclared wars, executive deception of Congress, and suppression of civil liberties in the name of anticommunism. Wilson's policies, controversial and unpopular in 1920, had become ordinary by the 1950s. Statesmen and historians of the 1950s rejected and even trivialized isolationism. Interested in pushing the United Nations, then thoroughly under U.S. influence, they appreciated Wilson's efforts on behalf of the League of Nations. N. Gordon Levin, Jr., put it neatly: "Ultimately. in the post World War II period, Wilsonian values would have their complete tri umph in the bi-partisan Cold War consensus." 26 Thus Wilson's im proved evaluation in today's textbooks can be attributed largely [Q the fact that the ideological needs of the 1950s, when Wilson was in the zamani. were different from those of the 1920s. when he was passing into the sasha. The mistreatment and enslavement of the Caribbean Indians by the Spaniards was noted by Bartolome de las Casas and others while Colum bus was stilI in the sasha. Later, however, Columbus was lionized as a daring man of science who disproved the flat-earth notion and opened a new hemisphere to progress. This nineteenth-century Columbus ap pealed to a nation concluding three hundred years of triumphant warfare over Indian nations. But by 1992 Columbus the exploiter had begun receiving equal billing with Columbus the explorer. and many Colum bus celebrations drew countercelebrations. often mounted by Native Americans. The "new" Columbus, closer to the Columbus of the sasha. appealed to a nation that had to get along with dozens of former colonies. now new nations. The contrast between the 1892 and 1992 celebrations of Columbus's first voyage again shows the effect of different vantage points. The Confederate myth of Reconstruction first permeated the histori cal literature during the nadir of race relations, from 1890 to 1920, and hung on in textbooks until the 1960s. Reconstruction regimes came to LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME
be portrayed as illegitimate and corrupt examples of "Negro domina tion." Now historians have retUrned to the view of Reconstruction PUt torrh in earlier histories, written while Republican governments still administered the Southern states. Eric Foner hails [he change as due to "objective scholarship and modern experience," a turn of phrase rhat concisely links the two key causes. Objective scholarship does exist in history. which is why I risk words like truth and lies. Mere chronological distance did not promote a more accurate depiction of Recons[fuction. Because the facts about Recons[fuction simply did not suit the "modern experience" of the nadir period. they lay mute during the early decades of the twentieth century, overlooked by most historians. Not until the civil rights movement altered "modern experience" could the tacts speak to US. l7 Historical perspective is thus not a by-product of the passage of rime. A more accurate view derives from Leon Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance. which suggestS that the social practices of the period when history is written largely determine that history's perspective on the past. ~8 Objective scholarship must be linked with a modern experience that permies it to prevail. The claim of inadequate historical perspective will not do as an excuse tor ignoring the sasha. Historians have no reason other than timidity for avoiding a full and thoughtful exposition of our recent past. Textbook authors are not solely responsible tor the slighting of the recent past in high school history courses. Even if textbooks gave the sasha the space it deserves. most students would have to read about it on their own, because most teachers never get to the end of the textbook. In her year-long American history course, the fifth-grade teacher Chris Zajac, subject of Tracy Kidder's Among Schoolchildren, never gets past Reconstruction! Time is not the only problem. Like publishers, teachers do not want to risk otTending parents. Moreover, according to Linda McNeil. most teachers particularly don't want (Q teach about Vietnam. "Their memories of the Vietnam war era made them wish to avoid topics on which the stUdents were likely (Q disagree with their views or that would make the students 'cynical' about American institutions." Therdore the average teacher grants the Vietnam War 0 to 4.5 milllll(!s in the entire school year! l~ The Vietnam War isn't nearly as contentious as some other issues from the recent past; today more than cwo of three adult Americans consider the war to have been morally wrong as well as tactically inept. JO More controversial is the women's movement. Every school district in dudes parents who strongly affirm traditional sex roles and other parents who do nor. Homosexuality is even more taboo as a subject of discussion DOWN THE MEMORY HOLE
or learning. Raising rhe ropic of affirmarive action leads ro angry debates. A negarive evaluation of the Carter or Reagan adminisrrarions would surely offend some Democratic or Republican parents, respectively. Mel and Norma Gabler, who organize right-wingers to pressure texrbook publishers. seek to make labor unions ;.I11d the Narional Council of Churches too controversial for authors and publishers even ro mention. Since all parents have opinions abour events they lived through, teachers and authors may feel rhey musr approach most topics in the sasha with extreme camion. The resulr is a history of rhe recent past along the line suggested by Thumper's mom: "If you can't say somerhin' nice. don't say nO£hin' at all." Unsurprisingly, only 2 to 4 percent of college Students say that they had any substantial treatment of the Vietnam War in high school.'!1 When textbooks downplay the sasha, however, they make ir hard for studenrs to draw connections berween the study of the pasr. their lives today. and the issues they will face in the future. Politicians across the polirical spectrum invoked "the lessons of Viernam" as rhey debated intervening in Angola. Lebanon. Kuwair. Somalia. and Bosnia. Bumper stickers reading" EI Salvador is Spanish for Vietnam" helped block send ing U.S. troops ro rhat narionY "The lessons of Vietnam" have also been used ro inform or mislead discussions about secrecy. rhe press, how the federal government operares, and even whether the military should admir gays. Issues raised by rhe women's movement in the 1970s con rinue ro reverberate through American society, atlecting insritutions from individual tamilies to the mass media. And so on. High school graduates have a right to enough knowledge about the recent past to parricipare intelligently in such debates. "The past is never dead," wrote William Faulkner. "Ir's not even past." The sasha is our most imporranr pasr, because ir is not dead but living-dead. Irs rheft by textbooks and teachers is the mosr wicked crime schools perpetrate on high school srudents, depriving rhem of perspective about rhe issues that mosr atfecr them. The semi remembered tactoids srudents carry with them abour rhe Barrie of Put in-Bay or Silent Cal Coolidge do linle ro help rhem undersrand the world into which rhey move ar graduation. That world is srill working our sex roles. Thar world is full of Third World narions with the poten rial to become "new Vietnams." Thar world is marked by social inequal ity. Leaving our the recent pasr ensures rhat srudellts will rake away Iitrle from rheir hisrory courses rhat rhey can apply ro (hat world. Florida's Disney World presents an exhibi( called "American Adven ture," a twenty-nine-minute hisrory of the Unired States. The exhibit complerely leaves- our rhe Viernam War. rhe gherro riors of the 1960s LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME
and 19905. and anyrhing else troubling about chI: recent past." The cotnpressed and bland accoullts of rhe recent pasr ill Amcril.."an hisrory rexrbooks show a similar failure of nerve 011 the parr of aurhors, publish ers, and many teachers. High school srudents deserve berrer than Di!>ney World hisrory. especially since rheir texrbooks are by no means as much as rhe amusement park.