Depictions of America as a fearless defender of democracy and freedom throughout the world pervade our daily political discourse and accounts of our nation’s history. Through its diplomacy and pervasive global reach, our government and media presume to hold up American history, government and culture as examples to all other nations – as if to say, “here, we are what you should aspire to be.” Yet even still, some remain unsatisfied.
A recent report by the Albert Shanker Institute, a nonprofit educational organization, has criticized our schools for being “too critical” of American history. Drawing support from many conservatives, the report has wedged its way into many political discussions today about how a “warts and all” look at American history has undermined the teaching of its “values and freedoms” as well. But such an assertion suffers from a serious lack of perspective. By putting an emphasis on knee-jerk patriotism and often illusory “values,” American education has effectively erased a vital part of our history.
Throughout the Cold War, our nation very clearly showed how scant its dedication to democracy and freedom truly was. How many American students know that in 1953, in the interests of cheap oil the United States backed the overthrow of the democratically elected leader of Iran in lieu of a dictator? Or that in 1954, we did the same thing in Guatemala – resulting, with our full knowledge, in the U.S.-backed tyranny’s mass murder of 200,000 Guatemalan citizens? Later, the United States involved itself in a civil war in Vietnam, first aligning itself with monarchists, then assassinating the South Vietnamese President, and then nullifying several elections in which South Vietnamese opted for Ho Chi Minh’s government. In the ensuing conflict, and later outright war, the United States killed roughly four million people – often civilians – in Southeast Asia.
Shortly afterwards in 1977, America backed military rulers in El Salvador who, again with the full support of the U.S. government, went on to kill 70,000 people (mostly political opponents). And let us not forget the billions in taxpayer money the CIA gave to Osama bin Laden in the 1980s, more billions in aid and weaponry supplied to Saddam Hussein to fight Iran (while he was committing genocide against the Kurds). These facts consistently don’t make the cut in American history textbooks.
How much has changed? Even today, the status quo in America is dismal for many. The gap between haves and have-nots is rapidly growing annually. Low-income Americans suffer from a miserable minimum wage, lack of safe or affordable housing, unattainable insurance, dysfunctional and under-funded schools, urban poor minority mortality rates that mirror those in some third-world countries, and a government that is more interested – as it has been historically – in protecting corporate and wealthy interests than in addressing the needs of its citizens, especially the worst off.
Merely acknowledging the ugliest abuses of American power, while perhaps not “patriotic,” gives students a better understanding of where our country stands in the world and in history. But despite their gravity, most of these examples are either ignored or glossed over today in American education. “Too critical?” Hardly. In the interests of a realistic idea of what America is today – and how it’s come to be – we must own up to our past. Education doesn’t mean much otherwise.