Welcome Dr. Huyler and the “Only in America” Series!
Dr. Jerome Huyler joins The Founding Project website to bring our members his publication, Only In America.
Huyler’s work is a study of America and also on civics education in America and will be presented on The Founding Project website in a series of articles. In particular, Dr. Huyler responds to one author’s book, which has come to influence a version of civics education that does not coordinate or coincide with the full civics education programs once prevalent in our schools.
In Dr. Huyler’s introduction, he begins to contrast the message of this one book and its conflict with prior decades of teaching. And, in his coming chapters, Huyler delivers the studied history behind the greatness of America.
The Founding Project welcomes Dr. Huyler and hopes our members appreciate this important series. Be sure to note his biography, below, for more books by Jerome Huyler, PhD.
[Editor’s Note: Sub-titles are supplied by TFP’s website editor for ease in reading and to meet SEO website requirements.]
Huyler’s “Only In America” Introduction
Repent America. Atone for your sins. Confess to the many crimes against humanity you have committed, violations perpetrated at home and abroad.
That’s the thrust of what American youth hear in the schoolrooms and college classes they attend. That’s the view from the Ivory Tower. It filters down from there to every profession charged with spreading ideas.
Here’s the charge: While America proclaimed the vaunted principles of Liberty and Equality, she hypocritically violated those principles from the start. Specifically, she denied the most basic civil and human rights to African American, whether slave or “free,” women, industrial workers, Native American tribes and newly arriving immigrant populations. And all this, while engaging in Imperialist conquests and wars across the globe.
To what end? “To make the world safe for democracy.”
A Critical View
No book has done more to spread this critical narrative than Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. It is a highly critical study exposing the worrisome war waged by America’s white and wealthy elites on what learned philosophers call “the other.” By 2015, more than 2.6 million copies of Zinn ‘s lengthy account had been sold in North America, and the book was already in print in some twenty languages.
In fact, it’s more than a book; it’s a cottage industry. As the edition commemorating Zinn’s passing noted: “In addition to drawing on the book, growing numbers of teachers across the United States use curricula and resources from organizations such as Voices of a People’s History of the United States, the Zinn Education Project, Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change to bring “a people’s history” to life in the classroom.”
One Book Became a Cottage Industry
The Introduction continues, “the (Zinn) book . . . became a cultural touchstone and publishing phenomenon: a book that each year sold more copies than the year before (the opposite of the traditional trajectory).” A People’s History entered the cultural mainstream and added to its immense popularity when in the Robin Williams flick, Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon recommended it to some Harvard grad students promising it will “knock you on your ass.” An illustration of the book also appeared in an episode of The Simpsons and was featured in The Sopranos when a show aired with Anthony Soprano Jr. reading a hardcover edition of the book.
Not the Standard for American History
We saw what the book is definitely not about when, in 2014, a local Colorado school board acted to ensure its Advanced Placement (AP) history courses “promote, citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-market system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights.” Immediately, students and teachers – some holding signs quoting Howard [Zinn] – walked out in protest. Responding to Zinn -inspired classroom perspectives, an act of the Oklahoma Common Education Committee voted to ban all AP US history courses because they focus[d] on ‘what is bad about America.'”
One Book, One Author’s Viewpoint, So Much Distress
What is it about Howard Zinn ‘s history that patriotic Americans find so disturbing? Fundamentally, he rebelled against the “approach to history, in which the past is told from the point of view of governments, conquerors, diplomats, leaders . . . . as if they . . . . the Founding Fathers, Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, Kennedy, the leading members of Congress, the famous Justices of the Supreme Court represent the nation as a whole. The pretense is that there really is such a thing as ‘the United States,’ subject to occasional conflicts and quarrels, but fundamentally a community of people with common interests. It is as if there really is a ‘national interest’ represented in the Constitution, in territorial expansion, in the laws passed by Congress, the decisions of the courts, the development of capitalism, the culture of education and mass media.”
Howard Zinn’s historical orientation, in short, stands in that broader tradition inaugurated by Karl Marx. The opening paragraphs of The Communist Manifesto (1848) spell things out neatly:
“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word; oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary re-constitution of society . . . or in the common ruin of the contending classes.
And, so, Zinn writes:
The history of any country presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest . . . between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.
Zinn decided to speak for history’s underdogs, the oppressed, the exploited, the many victims of Western “progress.”
I (Zinn) prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the stand-point of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees . . . of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills, of the Spanish-American war as seen by the Cubans . . . the Gilded Age as seen by the southern farmers, the First World War as seen by socialists, the Second World War as seen by pacifists,. . . . the post-war American empire as seen by peons in Latin America.
Even the “helpless” environment has fallen victim to unrestricted materialist gain. It’s as if the three gravest threats the nation faces are: global climate change, income inequality and White privilege.” Why the need for a Black Lives Matter movement if not because the majority of Americans believe that black lives don’t matter. Why the need for “Organizing for Action,” an amalgam of activists bent on pulling the nation in a particular, divisive direction?
Zinn talked about the 1% vs. the 99% long before the Occupy Wall Street protests were ever planned. As for good, old-fashioned displays of patriotism, such as going to school with the stars and stripes emblazoned on one’s tee shirt, that many of America’s schools will not tolerate. Private choice and free speech, perhaps, but “micro-aggressions” of this kind cannot be permitted. None may offend an “underclass” of daffodils studying on Ivy League campuses and lesser educational institutions across the country. “Trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” will be provided to all “aggrieved” parties.
America’s detractors are predisposed to see, not millions of individuals striving to better their condition, but social classes – and those classes locked in perpetual conflict. Oppressors and oppressed, exploiters and exploited, they cannot get past it. For Zinn and them, it’s all there is.
But, that “narrative” is woefully misguided. There is so much more for them to see if only Zinn and they would look. And, there certainly are common interests and a uniform national interest on which everything else depends. That interest was ably spelled out in the nation’s founding documents and principles: Liberty and Justice for all.
No, it isn’t wrong to point out how the nation’s founding principles were compromised and undermined for so long. The past was a brutal and cruel place, in many respects. What Zinn America’s academic and media critics don’t point to is
(1) how historically unprecedented the founders invocation of those principles were,
(2) the remarkable progress the country has made in realizing all that those principles promised, and
(3) that it was precisely those principles, proclaimed over and over by courageous Civil Rights and Women’s Rights leaders, that made progress toward real equality possible.
Martin Luther King had a dream, “that one day this nation would live out the meaning of its creed, that all men are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights including Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” He wished men would be judged not by the color of their skin, but the content of their character.” How American is that?
And, after launching the Women’s Rights Movement at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention in upstate New York, Elizabeth Cady Stanton recalled Jefferson’s July 4th Declaration, affirming: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, That all men and women are created equal and endowed with certainly unalienable rights . . . ”
Yes, it took eons for these great Americans to have their hopes realized, but it was the nation’s first principles that accompanied every mile post of progress the country passed on her never-completed journey to realizing true Liberty, Equality and Justice for all.
But, it is what our colleges and universities are not teaching that begs careful consideration. Men of good will may lament the unspeakable cruelty that was slavery, the sorrowful hundred year period that followed “emancipation” or the long struggle to extend a full complement of rights to women. Thank God those battles are, in great measure, behind, us. But there is another side of the American coin that deserves attention. Not too long ago, Virginia Postrel wrote:
Cultures are held together by the stories they tell about themselves, and America is struggling to find a new national story, one that can acknowledge past injustices without becoming defined by them. The old all-or-nothing morality tale of Good America has too often been superseded by an all-or-nothing morality tale of Evil America, which proclaims that every apparently positive accomplishment disguises a sadistic reality.
Virginia Postrel, NY Post Feb 6, 2017
The highly influential Pragmatist and Progressive philosopher Richard Rorty pleaded with his more radical fellow-travelers to tone down their shrill denunciations. Rorty saw how unproductive and self-defeating the unrelenting assault on the national identity could prove. He put it like this:
National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement . . . [J]ust as too little self-respect makes it difficult for a person to display moral courage, so insufficient national pride makes energetic and effective debate about national policy unlikely.
(Achieving Our Country, p. 3).
A Lost Picture
There’s something else. How can a man or a country hope to hold onto something it fears it is losing, if he or it doesn’t appreciate what allowed it to emerge, in the first place? To make America Great again, it would be helpful to know what exactly made her Great, in the first place. Exactly what is it that is slipping away? What was and still is so exceptional about the USA?
National Identity is About ALL of Us
Those who sing the praises of America, this shiny City on a hill, generally come from the world of politics and share a Conservative bent of mind. But the idea of American Exceptionalism is far broader and deeper than politics or anyone’s ideological outlook. It encompasses all that relates to this nation’s prevailing culture.
Now, the concept of culture is, itself, highly abstract and not that easy to pin down. It’s really no different from the concept of “food.” By our thirties (lol) we understand that “food” brings together in one abstract term all the fruits, vegetables, meats, poultry, breads, cereals, dairy products, nuts and snacks we consume. In like fashion, “culture” identifies and integrates all the visible patterns of life a given society displays. It is the sum of the values, traditions and institutional relationships that dominate at a given place and time.
The Basics of Who We Are
Values are the things most people hope to have and hold on to. Examples are good health, intact family structures, a prosperous life, or just personal freedom and independence. Traditions include the various observances that adorn the calendar year in every community. And, institutional relationships are the formal associations individuals organize or join for religious, economic, political, philanthropic, or recreational purposes.
Centuries of Effort and Wisdom
Before dissecting the elements of America’s exceptional cultural achievement, one point demands emphasis. America did not do it, alone. It took centuries for the full-blown blessings of American life to bloom and blossom. Gratitude is owed not just to the patriots who forged a nation built on the tough, demanding soil of freedom, or the figures who fought slavery and eventually overturned segregation’s Black Codes, but to scores of daring thinkers pondering the puzzles of human existence from ancient times forward.
Avoiding the Mistakes, Embracing the Freedom
A long line of educated people dared to imagine better ways to organize society. Across centuries, they left clear markers which modernity dug up and raised anew. America’s founders knew of these benefactors to humankind and did their best to build a civilization informed by their wisdom. They understood that if a free, tolerant society was to prevail, the traps, pitfalls and corruptions that defeated so many past societies would also have to be dug up – and buried, once and for all. By carefully capturing the elusive lessons of history, the errors made by past civilizations could be avoided.
In this Huyler series, we will disclose some of those critical discoveries.
[Dr. Jerome Huyler’s “Only In America–The Goodness Greatness Begot” will continue with its opening segment in an upcoming article on The Founding Project’s website. Stay tuned!]
Jerome Huyler, PhD. is a former assistant professor (Seton Hall University) and the author of Locke in America: The Moral Philosophy of the Founding Era and Everything You Have: The Case Against Welfare. Dr. Huyler lectures regularly at political events and patriotic organizations in the Greater New York Region. He is published in scholarly journals and several websites and has delivered invited addresses at national, regional and local academic conferences.