Rewriting America's Backstory

Fewer than half of America’s school children identify as White today. Many of these kids don’t imagine themselves in the thrill of Paul Revere’s nighttime ride or feel their pulse quicken at Patrick Henry’s heroic, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” It’s not believable to say “we” when talking about America’s past role in the world when your ancestors would never have been accepted as actors in it.

That’s why American history is being rewritten and will be rewritten. The contradiction cannot stand. There can be regional variation in how kids are taught history, but only to an extent. The U.S. truly has a national culture, which dictates that the country agree on a mainstream consensus about how we all got here.

My problem is that those re-writing the history are mostly whiny socialists, and they’re doing it badly. Meanwhile, those of us who embrace traditional American ideals, eat meat, and celebrate capitalism are resisting change. It’s a losing battle. We cannot expect the new majority of non-white kids to accept a backstory that belittles their families. Equally, we cannot expect the plurality of white kids to accept a backstory that belittles their families. Conservatives need to participate in writing a more inclusive version of U.S. history.

For me, this challenge is personal. I’m a proud WASP—White Anglosaxon Protestant—who benefited from everything Indiana had to offer growing up. My wife immigrated as an adult from Namibia, a small African country. And our unbelievably beautiful children are…all of it. But I’m told they’ll be flattened to “Black”. My 7-year-old insists she’ll always be Californian because we lived there until she was 3. History as taught in schools today won’t serve them well: neither the liberal victimhood of New York curriculum (where we are now) or the reactionary myths still taught in middle America.

My goal is to spark a re-telling of U.S. history that encourages proud, self-aware patriotism in any American student. A few principles that guide my retelling are:

  • Any complicated true story can be told many ways, and history’s value is for learning about the present. I want to tell truth that gives kids healthy perspective to understand their world.
  • Our understanding of history is tied up with our value system. I’m raising my kids as Christians so there are lots of Bible references. If this work ever gets broader adoption, the moral lessons could be kept while removing explicit religious references.
  • History makes more sense if the characters act rationally. I emphasize characters’ economic motivations and the role of economic systems. To make sense, U.S. history must be learned in the context of European colonialism and America-the-continent.
  • I’m a White man trying to interpret the history of oppression of Black and Brown people throughout America’s history in a way that’s fair and palatable to most American Christians. The project is fraught. I hope my writing is judged on its merits, and that readers’ criticisms will be constructive. If you think I’m wrong, I promise to self-reflect and not reflexively defend what I’ve written. White, Black and Brown are all capitalized since the words refer to social constructs of race rather than literal colors.
  • I don’t have beef with how all of U.S. history is taught. I focus on issues of inclusion because that’s the part that’s broken. Other parts are important too.

And a final important point. People naturally identify with a tribe. We want kids’ tribe to include all of multicultural America. I want a second-generation Vietnamese immigrant and her White classmate to both proudly say “we” about America. But ancestors from those cultures didn’t get along. Resolving this contradiction demands a sacrifice. Kids can no longer identify so closely with historical U.S. figures. “We” didn’t drop napalm on Vietnam—the U.S. army did. And “we” didn’t write the Bill of Rights—the Americans of that time did (James Madison, actually).

Many countries face this same dilemma. Usually, there is a cutoff point. British say “we” about recent history, but not about whoever built Stonehenge. Chinese people don’t feel pride or shame about Cao Cao from 2000 years ago—he’s just part of the story. Germans say “we” about 1995, but not about 1945. This philosophy is consistent with the conservative critiques of Critical Race Theory that you cannot condemn people for things they didn’t do. It’s also consistent with Jesus’ words that the Pharisees were guilty for their forefathers having prophets killed the prophets because they did as their fathers did.

The essays I’ve written to help reframe American history and society include:

I’m playing with how to combine these essays into a book: American History for My Children

Written on June 8, 2022