Twisting History : Newt Gingrich’s “history lessons” are just political indoctrination

<i> Robert Dawidoff is a professor of history at the Claremont Graduate School and co-author (with Michael Nava) of "Created Equal: Why Gay Rights Matter to America."</i>

A classroom of the airwaves . . . and you are there, attending via satellite or video a discussion of the lessons of American history. The teacher has an informal style, a Donahue-like ease with controlling the flow of discussion. There are opportunities for student questions, staged in the manner of an infomercial--not to mention an 800 number, testimonials from satisfied viewers and opportunities to buy T-shirts and coffee mugs.

The topic is the Gettysburg Address. We see a short clip from the Ken Burns “Civil War” documentary that describes the occasion: Edward Everett spoke for two hours, Abraham Lincoln for a few minutes; Lincoln was disappointed in himself, and many others were critical of his effort. The teacher asks the students to consider what lessons this excerpt holds for them. Their answers are copied on large sheets of paper and hung on the walls to facilitate “brainstorming.” Among the lessons:

Don’t talk too long.

Don’t listen to critics.

Past experience can mislead.


Things are different in the long term from the short term.

Only later do we hear the actual Gettysburg Address read, also from the Burns documentary. A discussion of democracy ensues. The teacher defines “democracy” as Lincoln’s government “of the people, by the people and for the people,” finding insight in the actor’s emphasis on the word “people” in his reading of the line. The teacher contrasts democracy with Stalin’s and Hitler’s ideologically defended massacres of their own citizens.

The teacher’s point is that America is an exception in the history of civilization because it is a unique example of success. The wiping out of native American peoples and the slaughter that was part of the slave trade do not figure as relevant questions for the student to consider. In fact, the celebratory tone of the presentation heads off any troubling questions that might arise during such a discussion.

This classroom of the air comes from “Renewing American Civilization,” the bully pulpit of Newt Gingrich, the next Speaker of the House. Gingrich has said that this college course, taught at Reinhardt College in Waleska, Ga., and distributed to more than 100 colleges nationwide, is the most important of his many public works. I watched several episodes of the series and read the accompanying materials to get an idea of what my fellow history teacher means by American history. I should perhaps declare a special interest here: Jeffrey Eisenach, a member of Gingrich’s inner circle and the President of the Progress and Freedom Foundation, which supports the broadcast of “Renewing American Civilization,” studied U.S. intellectual and cultural history with me when he was an undergraduate at what was then Claremont Men’s College.

History classes are meant to instruct the student in basic historical information and the methods by which evidence can be found and evaluated and opinions about the past formed. History is intended as much to satisfy the abiding human curiosity about the past as to help us understand something of the world in which we live. Our work in the classroom is supposed to be about teaching students what they can and cannot support from the evidence available. But historians understand that history, like the Bible, can be used to support almost any side of an argument. One thing history teachers learn quickly is that if you give students the historian’s tools, you inevitably help them to disagree with your own interpretations.

Gingrich, however, does not give his students the kind of primary or secondary sources and the historian’s craft that will enable them to form their own views, independent of his; the highly opinionated essays in the course reader, none by historians, reinforce his views. Gingrich views American civilization as a series of a priori qualities that are certainly values that many Americans--and even non-Americans--espouse. The five principles of American civilization, as presented here, are: “1. personal strength, 2. entrepreneurial free enterprise, 3. the spirit of invention and discovery, 4. quality, as described by (a popular management guru), and 5. the lessons of American history.” Gingrich believes that American history reflects these values. He does not consult history to formulate or understand the problems he addresses, he is already certain of the problems and the solutions. History is his word for the illustrations he gives from the past of the things he already believes in the present.

Take for instance the Gingrich view of immigration. “Renewing American Civilization” represents the experience of immigrants by the happy testimony of successful individual immigrants like Arianna Huffington and Arnold Schwarzenegger and groups such as gathered at Ellis Island for citizenship ceremonies. Taken together, these support the proud claim that America is uniquely a nation of immigrants who are then assimilated into an American civilization, which is the envy of the world. The nativism, racism, religious bigotry, unfair labor conditions and other obstacles voluntary immigrants have always encountered are irrelevant to Gingrich’s project of renewal, as is the experience of the slaves imported from Africa.

Historians differ about the comparative experiences of immigration and the conclusions to be drawn from them. Few, however, would propose the unmediated celebratory model Gingrich advances. From the beginning, immigrants to the United States encountered nativist restrictionism, and persecution, as well as opportunity. For every success story, there are many more stories of frustration and disappointment. The notion that generation after generation of immigrants “learned” to be American is equally wrongheaded. Indeed, immigrants participated in the constant forming and reforming of that civilization, which has always been dynamic rather than static and contested rather than agreed upon. But Gingrich is not interested in the history of immigration. The lectures reveal an complacent ignorance of what generations of historians, regardless of their politics, have been finding out about U.S. history.

What historians do share is a certain method and understanding of evidence. Gingrich can use the encounter between a British officer and a frontiersman from the movie version of “The Last of the Mohicans” to illustrate American uniqueness, while elsewhere celebrating the Anglo-Saxon roots of what is distinctive about the United States. In one breathtaking moment, he allows that American civilization began in 1607 or 1620, Jamestown and Plymouth, or maybe in the Southwest with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors or maybe 19,000 years ago with the Native Americans. He appears to have little sense of the truly stupendous differences such dating of American civilization might imply. No more does the racial past of American history interest him except to assert that government has been the evildoer in the three phases of the African American situation: slavery, segregation and the welfare state.

Reading the African American place in American history as another example of government interference may be a brilliant political ploy. Its presentation of the black experience, however, lumps under one rubric a mass of contradictory historical evidence. For example, the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, which Congress adopted to protect the newly won freedom of emancipated slaves, were virtually nullified until the modern civil rights movement shamed the government into action.

The whole point of the historian’s enterprise is to distinguish historical fact from historical fiction; that is what historians labor to do. To do so, you have to accept a gap between what history teaches and what people need or want to know. History is almost always ambiguous in its prescriptions. But like Leonard Jeffries, whose unscholarly racial theories got him demoted from the chairmanship of the black studies department at the City College of New York, Gingrich offers history that is ideological indoctrination masquerading as scholarship.

You don’t have to disagree with Gingrich’s politics to find his understanding of history unconvincing and dangerous. Plenty of his conservative allies know better than he the dangers of a convenient history as an argument for an expedient public course of action. The mistake all agenda-ridden historians like Speaker Gingrich make is to confuse their own views with education and the privilege of teaching with their use of the classroom to indoctrinate.

Ideology fears liberal education because, once begun, the process of individual intellectual freedom is hard to restrict. The American founders believed more in the force of education than in themselves. The essential difference between the United States and other nations was meant to be that no orthodoxy was more important than the individual’s right to think things through and act accordingly. This required that the individual be entrusted with the tools of decision making and not just someone else’s idea of the right decisions. The study of history is one way for a citizen to make informed decisions.

Ironically, Gingrich has recognized this need in preparing a “required reading list” for his congressional colleagues. That list includes “The Federalist Papers,” Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” and James T. Flexner’s “Washington: The Indispensable Man"--titles that are not on the list for “Renewing American Civilization.” Apparently one reading list is appropriate to political leaders, and another for political followers.

“Renewing American Civilization,” 1800 Parkway Pl . , Ste . 315, Marietta, Ga., 30067. (404) 919-9804 or (800) TO-RENEW.