It has long been believed that one of the points of teaching and studying history is the old saying attributed to Winston Churchill “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
So clearly studying history would be to all our benefit, but just as clearly, we have failed to learn the lessons that history offers. One of the reasons that’s true is the equally oft quoted saying “History is always written by the winners. When two cultures clash, the loser is obliterated, and the winner writes the history books — books that glorify their own cause and disparage the conquered foe. As Napoleon once said, 'What is history, but a fable agreed upon?'”
With that in mind, we approach the current debate about teaching history today with all the tools available to us to research and find reports and letters and other often overlooked documents provided by the vanquished. With that information, we can cobble together a wider and richer picture of historical events and learn what thoughts and actions led to events that, in retrospect, appear tragic. We don’t have to look far to find examples of tragedy and see how history has been taught with a slanted view.
A good example is the “Battle of Washita River.” Led by the well-known General George C. Custer, a Civil War hero – later courtmartialed and convicted for desertion and mistreatment of soldiers – who led the attack on Black Kettle, a “peace” chieftain of the Cheyenne Tribe, who was on his way with his band to a peace conference. While camped along the Washita River, here in current-day Oklahoma, Custer led an early morning attack on the unsuspecting group. While he lost 21 soldiers, it is estimated they killed 140 men and up to 75 women and children.
It was hailed as a great victory in battle, but that appears to be what Napoleon was referring to as “an agreed upon fable.” It was a massacre. Likewise, the Trail of Tears has been sanitized in history books or overlooked completely so we weren’t taught that "approximately 4,000 Cherokees died in the ensuing trek to Oklahoma. In the Cherokee language, the event is called "nu na da ul tsun yi," or "the place where they cried" – or "nu na hi du na tlo hi lu i" – "the trail where they cried.” All that because white people wanted the Cherokee lands and gold.
And who in Oklahoma was taught about the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, another massacre? I was not, and no one I know from my generation was taught about it.
For me, the question is not should all history be taught – that’s not possible – but should all aspects of the history we teach be included: the good, the bad and the ugly? Of course, any content of any lesson needs to be age appropriate. The history we teach in high school and college can be much more inclusive of the difficult events and ideas than the history taught in grade school or middle or junior high.
According to Gov. Stitt, “We can, and should, teach this history without labeling a young child as an ‘oppressor’ or requiring he or she feel guilt or shame based on their race or sex,” He then signed legislation that prohibits the teaching of some of the lessons we need to learn. We cannot learn from a partial lesson.
Fearmongering that our kids will be harmed if they know the truth is not the answer. “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free!” The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Then we can learn the lessons of history.
Robert Lee is a retired social worker with interests in history and politics. He lives in Tahlequah.