I started a post explaining my thoughts about Princeton students demanding that Woodrow Wilson’s name be removed from campus when I took a break to read the paper. I’m guessing my brain might be tuned in anti-critical direction — or maybe hyper meta-critical direction? You decide — because reading a Room for Debate series from the New York Times had me rolling my eyes, groaning “here we go again.”
The gist of the current Room for Debate topic is this. The traditional Thanksgiving story is a lie so the paper asks if we should rethink the way we teach the story to kids.
The first “debater” in this series, Esther Storrie, an Illinois school librarian and teacher, reads like she took a seminar in corporate jargon and sort of misses her own lesson when her opening line concludes “I don’t teach Thanksgiving, I teach children.” But surely she knows what we mean, right? So cut the cutesy crap and get to it. Her own critique explains that she teaches children to put words in context. Certainly we understand the context of the question, Ms. Storrie, so tell us, when you are teaching children, how do you deal with Thanksgiving?
There is smart stuff in there about letting children explore and learn and such. That’s important, but lends only an outlying context to the question. Let’s move on.
Yatibaey Evans has it half right. She describes her eyes welling up with tears when trying to answer questions her son asks about European genocide that he is reading about in Howard Zinn‘s “A People’s History of the United States.” She calls for “going beyond” the traditional story and telling more of the truth. To this I say, yes, ok…but I am not sure that is teaching Thanksgiving either.
It seems to me that Thanksgiving has evolved to be something different from the myths of our founding and I’m not convinced there is anything inherently wrong with that. If the myth is about grace, thanks, and diversity, why shouldn’t we embrace that? It might not be grounded in much truth, but that truth is hundreds of years in the past and is larger than any folk tale about a harvest feast.
Thanksgiving, the holiday, has become a tangible truth, we celebrate it every year. If that includes stories about pilgrims and Indians and silly hats, so what? We use stories to convey values and define who we are. There is nothing wrong with fooling ourselves once in a while if it gives us a reason to pause, be civil, and recognize all the things for which we should be thankful.
What about the importance of historical honesty and truth? Yes, the truth should be taught. We should understand our past, both the good and the bad, but is that Thanksgiving or is it a different lesson? When celebrate — or even “teach” — Thanksgiving, we are codifying an ideology more than we are celebrating an incorrect history.
Of the essays in this debate, Tracy McKenzie, author of “The First Thanksgiving” has the best answer. He suggests that maybe we shouldn’t teach Thanksgiving at all. He concludes:
More than a century later, the U.S. Still wrestles with challenges of diversity, and we’re still tempted to distort the “first Thanksgiving” into one of two equally present-minded morality tales: the heart-warming multicultural celebration or the cruel reminder of European colonialism. Both tell us more about current perspectives than historical realities. If such caricatures are really our best option, historical truth would be better served by deleting Thanksgiving from the curriculum entirely.
This is smart, but it makes sense only if you believe the question of Thanksgiving is an either/or option. What harm do these caricatures of the past pose? The best answer is, of course, the risk of forgetting, however I would suggest that we have a lot to deal with in the present regarding matters of race and even colonialism that should not become forgotten in lessons of the past. We are still a very divided society, perhaps increasingly so. It seems reasonable to me that stories — even if they are largely myths — that provide an alternative to our darker present realities might do some good.
On to Woodrow Wilson…