Falling in love with our mythology while ignoring our history

Critical race theory reaction says much more about us than any history book could

A frieze by Lenore Thomas of the Preamble of the Constitution of the United States. It was made in 1937 (Wikimedia, Creative Commons license).

One of the roles of a journalist – arguably the most important – is to set the record straight: Seek facts, report truth and understand context.

During one conversation this week, a reader chastised us for not reporting about the dangers of COVID-19 vaccines. She scolded us for not reporting “the other side.” And while a classic textbook definition of journalism is getting all sides to a story, not all sides should be afforded equal weight. That doesn’t set well with many folks, but it’s the truth. Journalists aren’t stenographers and their obligation is to the truth, as best it can be ascertained. And yet that means that we must make reasonable judgments about facts, their context, and must be able to support what we write by credible, accepted sources.

For example, nearly 100 percent of climate scientists agree the weather is changing and humans are a major cause of that impact. There is another side, of course: Those who say that climate change is either not happening, or doubt humans have made much of a difference. Affording equal weight and credibility to both sides is as dubious as presenting vaccines and leeches as equally effective treatments for smallpox.

It’s true that journalists should present the facts and let readers come to their own conclusions, but that assumes the journalists have already done the hard homework of getting the best and most reliable information in the first place, an ever-growing challenge in the day of disinformation, misinformation and billions of websites and social media chatter.

Last week, when I wrote about critical race theory, some responded that I wanted to teach white kids to hate themselves or I believe that all Caucasian folks are racist. Not true on either count.

They asked why I didn’t share the other side to the story, either the great things that European culture has given, or that other races are guilty of bias or racism.  Both statements with which I concur.

However, the problem may be something more nuanced – something especially dangerous in the days of quick, few-second soundbytes and social media posts limited to 280 characters.

We’re more in love with our mythology than our history.

Lawmakers across the country love invoking our revolutionary past and regard documents like the Constitution as divinely inspired. That kind of admiration, if left unchecked, can quickly turn into a sort of religion or mythology.

We’re in love with the idea of all people being created equal, but we’re less thrilled when it comes with putting that in practice. We talk a lot about divine providence creating this nation, but quickly forget those same inspired patriots intentionally devised a scheme for disenfranchising people of color and completely forgetting about women. Our history has a lot more warts than our mythology.

That’s why when it comes to what history we teach in school, we have to defend the rigid, fact-based curriculum, and approach the academic study of history provides. We must eschew the comfortable trap of mythology and trade it for an unflinching look at what really happened, from the massacre of Native people in Montana, to the true cause of the Civil War, slavery.

The problem is that we can be suckered into believing our mythology is history. That’s understandable – even the very Greek word which gives us mythology means “a story.” An history is, in part, a recitation of stories. However, the word can also be synonymous for fiction. Believing elements of our mythology is sometimes very important: For example, setting slaves free is an essential concept for learning about the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. It was a national watershed moment in which we said publicly, from the top, that slavery is wrong. However, history teaches us that the proclamation was a declaration of freedom for a different country, the Confederate States of America, and it didn’t necessarily relieve the horrible living and social conditions of Black people in the North.

Mythologies can change and even adapt to new circumstances and information, but history and the facts that come out of it are much more stubborn and shouldn’t be as easily discounted. For example, our mythology of George Armstrong Custer has changed almost completely from Custer’s army being innocently slaughtered on the Little Big Horn to one of an arrogant, aggressive leader provoking an attack and disobeying orders. The facts of the battle haven’t changed much since 1876, but our understanding — in other words — our mythology has.

So when the extreme reaction of those like Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen or Attorney General Austin Knudsen warn that teaching a concept may be illegal, it’s important to watch the virulent reaction as much as paying attention to their overheated words. You see, they’re not worried about teachers armed with facts, they’re more concerned about puncturing a mythology that helps enable a political party to stay in power. If you don’t look too deeply, you won’t find virtually zero evidence of voter fraud. If you only embrace our glorious mythology, you won’t know about the slaves these hallowed founders owned. Our own state’s leaders are betting their mythologies will be more pleasant and acceptable than if you truly investigate our shared history.

Scaring folks away from history toward a mythology ensures that folks don’t look too deeply at the facts — that they’ll see the social unrest in movements like Black Lives Matter as some sort of anarchist rejection of America, rather than a mass movement which is using that same brilliant system the flawed Founding Fathers created to make a more perfect union.

The irony here is that history and the facts suggest an even greater narrative: That those early leaders recognized their own fallibility and gave us an antidote and the means to improve it.

If ever there was a time to build a mythology around a concept it is this: The idea of correcting and improving society to become more just, more compassionate and more diverse.