It's not often that history teachers get to have a good laugh. But this week we enjoyed a rare moment of rolling-on-the-floor laughter.
You see, we're usually grim folks who favor "boring textbooks" and "monotonous lectures" in our quest to indoctrinate children with "filtered," "biased and politically correct" history. At least, that's how Mike Huckabee sees us.
His new company, "Learn our History," helps kids avoid the trauma of teacher-inflected history by selling videos to their parents that offer "children a fun, fresh way to learn about America's rich past." Apparently, operators are now standing by to take orders for the Time Travelers Academy cartoon series.
With production values that rival those of low-budget Saturday-morning cartoons, a plot that sends an unlikely group of bicycle-riding, time-traveling teens back to the Greatest Moments in our past, and a marketing campaign that seems inspired by ShamWow, the whole thing is ripe for ridicule.
It could be really funny, but it's really not.
I'm a former history teacher who has also spent a long time in the world of educational publishing. From the standpoint of history, education and democracy, this is an appalling product.
Make no mistake, this isn't education; it's kiddie-propaganda. The favored narratives—of a nation planted here by God and heroic leaders free from flaws—are driven by pure politics. Simple stories absorbed by young minds—what better way to inoculate younger kids against the unpleasant facts revealed and critical thinking required by real history when they encounter it in school? As one character says about the video experience, "What we see and hear isn't always the same as what we read in books … So what?! We know the truth and that's good enough for us!"
The first video in the series is, of course, "The Reagan Revolution." It shows how the former president, after invoking God, rescued the country from the crime-ridden chaos of the 1970s—as personified by a black mugger. After enjoying this insult to animators everywhere, kids will receive a new video every month—for only $11.95 plus shipping—on topics cherry-picked from other triumphal chapters in our past. Looks like we'll have to wait awhile for the series on unpleasant topics like slavery, Jim Crow, nativism or the treatment of American Indians.
Marketed to "grandparents, parents and homeschoolers" for 4th graders, the series is a cynical attempt to prey on their fears of a changing America. Targeting 9-year-olds is no accident. Few states include history in any curriculum prior to 5th grade. In most places, 4th graders explore geography and learn about their state.
Huckabee's a big fan of David Barton, the right-wing pseudo-historian who peddles the idea that America's founders established a Christian country on Biblical principles. If Huckabee had his way, "every single young person in America would be able to be under his tutelage." Barring that, he'd settle for Barton "writing the curriculum" to highlight American exceptionalism.
There's no denying that the United States is an exceptional nation in many ways. We're exceptional in that we have a founding national creed, articulated in the Declaration of Independence, in which we aspire to equality, individual rights and freedom. We've spent most of our history in a courageous struggle to realize those ideals. We have faith that education can produce adults able to discern truth in the war of ideas, recognize injustice and have the courage to right it, think critically about our decisions and be capable of governing ourselves.
Our history, told warts and all, offers students a chance to see how contending people settled disputes, and how others secured their rights and made the country better. It serves no one—other than those already on top—to serve up a fairy tale history that ignores our imperfections.
For accuracy, most teachers rely on educational publishers who back up their work with scholarship. Usually, their schools and districts require that materials go through a lengthy and often public vetting process before they can be used in classrooms. That isn't good enough for Learn Our History. They've come up with three steps to ensure accuracy. First, their "lead researcher" combs printed and online sources. Next, he or she weaves them into a script that "often uses direct quotations from historical figures." Finally, it's reviewed for accuracy by at least two members of the Council of Masters.
You heard that right: a Council of Masters.
This august group of four includes historian Larry Schweikart, author of "A Patriot's History of the United States" and a hero of Glenn Beck. That's the only historian. Slots two and three are a political scientist whose expertise is in European political philosophy and an assistant professor whose specializations include "biblical worldview pedagogy." In the last spot is a high school social studies teacher with a B.A. in history. He is also the founder of the Howell Academy, a "private instructional institution," which turns out to be a blog, with two posts. I'll let the English teachers judge them for spelling and grammar.
Let's review: A laughable product with no correlation to either educational standards or vetted curriculum is marketed to credulous and frightened people. It claims to be unbiased and unfiltered, yet promotes a very specific and political worldview associated with right-wing conservative politics. A dubious theocratic cabal, the Council of Masters, provides its imprimatur. Its aim: to indoctrinate youngsters before they actually study history in school.
If this product came from anyone else, it would get nowhere in the marketplace. But because Mike Huckabee, a prominent politician, is involved, it gets airtime and he gets to talk about it with Bill O'Reilly on Fox News.
It's easy to imagine this is an isolated bad idea, but it's really no laughing matter. The assault on history and on education as a means to raise up critical, engaged and informed citizens comes from many fronts these days. We should be teaching more history by engaging kids with the serious and challenging problems of our past. Huckabee thinks the solution is to brainwash kids into thinking that history is entertainment meant to make them feel good.
We know better. History matters. It's meant to help us learn how to change the world.