Meister Käßner
13 min readJun 17, 2020

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What your Columbia University Professor got half Wrong and why All of Us need to Improve our Shared Myths of the Past

In sorting through files from my classroom at the end of this school year I stumbled upon a photocopy of an article from American Heritage Magazine. It is worth a quick scan for anyone interested in how we got into this mess today. Professor John A. Garraty of Columbia University and author of a major college textbook describes the 100 key facts every college educated (white?) American should know.

The article opens with a section entitled “Politics Makes Good Slogans.” The first few, “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” and “54 40 or fight,” describe how presidents got elected by celebrating imperialistic conquests against the indigenous inhabitants of “Turtle Island” and our near neighbors to the South in Mexico. Memorize our Manifest Destiny of White Conquest and “. . . you too can pass the test and get your free ticket to a home in the suburbs.”

The book Garraty wrote with co-author Mark Carnes was entitled American Destiny. You can even rent a copy for the low price of $21.99. Before shelling out your hard earned summer tips on this bejeweled spectacle you might want to pause in Unlucky point 13 from the article.

Cover of the third edition.

“Nixon’s the one. Republican slogan in the 1968 presidential campaign, sometimes used by the Democrats on posters bearing the photograph of a very pregnant black woman.”

How does the “Gen X” history teacher whose friends and relations still imbibe from the fire hose of Foxy Propaganda even respond to such a rant?

The “George Wallace Democrats” who were strong in BOTH the North and South launched a smear campaign against Nixon to prevent him from winning.

Similar campaigns have been launched ever since against “Blue State,” “RINO,” and Romney, Baker, Rockefeller, and Bush Republicans.

The “True Patriot” is the one who is loyal to the Old Confederacy, white supremacy, and the racially tinged fears of northern Suburbanites who fled the inner cities during race riots of the late 1960s and forced integration of the 1970s. Angry antiwar protesters occupied administration buildings, rifled through professors files, and demanded more control over the curriculum. It is not surprising that many professors sympathized their colleagues more than the “dirty hippies.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/21/arts/columbia-university-1968-protest.html

My own father refused to cancel physics lectures at the University of Rochester during Vietnam era protests. He was doing his job. He was also preparing for the birth of his first child and awaiting word on his Gugenheim Fellowship that he would receive in 1969.

https://www.gf.org/fellows/all-fellows/theodore-g-castner-jr/

In writing and editing this article on the 90th anniversary of his birth, I too am doing my job, in a sense; attempting to analyze the past and present dispassionately. The historian may have no country, but he certainly has a family, a tribe and a personal story.

I also was doing my job when I valiantly strove to keep teaching the documentary Atomic Cafe as fires burned in the parking lot of a suburban high school. Apparently a drug deal had gone bad. I refused to let a student out to the parking lot to move her car out of safety concerns. The car soon caught on fire and was destroyed. She had no fire insurance.

Did I wisely protect her life, or foolishly destroy her vehicle? The judgements of readers will differ. I am comfortable with my choice.

Grace for historians who complicate narratives and still struggle to overcome their own biases is in short supply in June of 2020.

How many years ago was it that Obama led the nation in Amazing Grace?

That was when some of us were still young and naive and believed in Theodore Parker and Dr. King’s fabled Arc of History.

Conservatives were not amused. History had ended with the fall of Communism. They had won, we could safely transition to a consumer’s paradise. Or, so they thought . . . Problems of urban blight, justice, health care, and an honest accounting of our national sins could be deferred until the next judgement day.

Arcs extend well beyond tweets, sound bites, and carefully curated museum displays. They require deep knowledge of big history and the patience to listen to or study carefully the ramblings of older historians and writers such as this one . . .

Professor Garraty’s article included a smattering of Supreme Court Cases, such as Plessy v. Ferguson, Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade, and of course the “grandfather clause of them all . . .” Dred Scott v. Sanford. The dramatic description of Roger B. Taney’s disastrous decision reads, “In effect, this decision opened all the West to slavery, infuriated the North, and pushed the nation more precipitously toward civil war.”

To summarize for non AP/College history infected readers. White Northerners got mad at white Southerners for extending racism. A catastrophic war followed. 600,000 people died. Rich white dudes should learn to get along. We can make more money that way. No wonder Garraty taught at Columbia. He had Wall Street donors to please.

(My cutting tone seems somehow unfair and overly harsh. But how do you explain 2020 without invoking our shared myths and memories and how they contributed to our national blindness?)

The role of “enslaved Africans” or better yet “free-blacks” consciously sacrificing their freedom to fight for equality is mysteriously missing from the summary. Other books and documentaries similarly noted the challenges but transitioned to hopeful tales of inevitable progress. Mel Gibson’s film, The Patriot, released one score years ago, further fed the myth of redemptive violence. Just kill enough Indians or Redcoats and we can worry about justice later. But later never seems to come.

After the list of presidential assassins, important terms, and “twenty wonderful nicknames” of “White Americans, we are presented with 10 paintings of “white people” that say America. The next set includes quotations from white people to teach “white students” about their past.

(What is the discerning “white college educated reader to take from this assemblage?”

Let the reader decide.

Finally, we reach item 77 which recognized the pioneering black scholar W.E.B. Du Bois. The excerpt begins with the phrase, “Mr. Washington apologizes for injustice, he belittles the emasculating effects of caste distinctions, and opposes the higher training and ambitions of our brighter minds.”

Students eyes glaze at the sophisticated, gendered vocabulary. Do we forgive them when they are unaware of the race of the French sounding Du Bois or that the Washington he is criticizing is Booker T., not George?

A step back to item 76 (in the spirit of 1776 or was it 1976) allows us to read from Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery, “To those of my race who depend on bettering their condition in a foreign land or who underestimate the importance of friendly relations with the Southern white man, who is their next-door neighbor, I would say, ‘Cast down your bucket where you are.”

In modern speak, “Trust your former masters and hate or distrust immigrants. They take your jobs.”

Alert former AP students would recognize the passage as deriving from the famous Atlanta Compromise speech. Washington delivered his address to an almost entirely black crowd in 1896. That same year the nine white men on the Supreme Court released the aforementioned Plessy v. Ferguson decision. “Separate is not unequal,” they thundered ignoring the entire history of race relations in the United States. They reaffirmed early decisions which argued that the Constitution does not protect the rights of Black People despite the clear language of the 14th and 15th amendments. As historian David Blight later argued, national reconciliation among whites was purchased at the price of sacrificing the dignity and stories of Black soldiers and activists of the previous century.

Soon thereafter, Garraty provided the names of six great historians (because they are our best.) The list includes George Bancroft, Francis Parkman, Henry Adams, Frederick Jackson Turner, Charles A. Beard, and Allan Nevins who is described as “one of the founders of American Heritage.”

It goes without saying that they are all white and male and privileged. It was the 1980s. Affirmative action takes a long time to “trickle up” to the highest levels of the historical profession and back down to college or high school textbooks.

The irony gets richer when we realize that this year’s Bancroft Prizes, the most prestigious in the historical profession, went to authors telling stories of failed past efforts to save American urban areas. I even debated Lizabeth Cohen’s earlier work with my father who had a distinctly different memory of growing up in Tenafly, New Jersey than the one chronicled in her book The Consumer’s Republic.

Knowing such important facts as well as “Seven Speeches to Remember” and “One Date Everyone gets Wrong” helped me to get a coveted “5” on the AP US History exam in 1988. Typically I keep the score to myself. I would prefer them to understand that the true purpose of the course is the struggle to learn, understand, and apply historical concepts. What is a single number grade determined by statisticians in the course of a lifetime? We need to be especially wary when such grades further sort students by wealth, education level of parents and zip codes of schools.

The document based question that year described urban renewal and destruction of another sort. The DBQ, an essay accompanied by primary source documents, raised the question of why we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. Was it solely to defeat Japan quickly or did it come with the added bonus of intimidating the Soviet Union in the post war world.

I wonder what the “correct answer” was supposed to be. Let the students debate, but not question the assumptions of their teachers or faculty masters too deeply.

I have no idea what I wrote on that fateful May day in 1988. I doubt I pointed out that the United States was the only country that had ever used nuclear weapons during wartime. I’m sure I was not even aware that we refused to ban landmines and chemical weapons so we could “defend” South Korea from the North.

I am certain I did not mention how Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush “single handedly” won the Cold War and then squandered the peace. The subsequent chase for “loose nukes” in the 1990s was just beginning.

Our preemptive and “fully justified” attacks against Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and other places were remained for the next millennium.

At the beginning of the twentieth century the Roosevelt Corollary claimed that must become the Police Man of of Latin American with options to buy more territory. None of that “sissy” Wilsonian internationalism so beloved by democrats.

https://blogs.baruch.cuny.edu/his1005spring2011/2011/03/02/the-roosevelt-corollary/

As recently as 2008, the heroic but unsuccessful presidential candidate, John McCain self identified as a member of the party of Theodore Roosevelt. The legacy remains a mixture of racial uplift, progressive activism, and aggressive imperialism with a racist and eugenecist flavor. Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to the White House, once. He was happy to back down when white southerners got upset.

The “wild Indians” and “disobedient slaves” of our still fevered imaginations could not have crossed my mind. Who who question America’s Manifest Arrogance? Maybe a woman?

Those later chapters had not been written yet. Their seeds had been deeply planted in our shared consciousness and myths. The antidotes were present as well.

I did not write about Lincoln’s “mystic chords of memory.” It would have been discounted as off topic. Nor did I include Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Jeremiad. It is easier not to teach such passages than to ponder the pain which they still evoke.

“Fondly do we hope ~ fervently do we pray ~ that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword as was said three thousand years ago so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

(His Name, by the way, was Gordon.)

I would wish, however, that I had included Lincoln’s benediction, “With malice toward none with charity for all with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan ~ to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Lincoln’s “just and lasting peace” has proven illusive. What did the Hebrew wordsmiths mean by “Shalom” or “Tikun Olam” the healing of the world?

Does anyone even care in 2020? Tom Brady is suiting up with a new team, and retail sales are growing rapidly. The stock market continues its rise as misery spreads across the land.

Maybe, I could have included a single snapshot of a Japanese child’s lunch box blown to smithereens in the explosion. Of course the Republicans under Newt Gingrich blocked it from the display at the Smithsonian because it would have dishonored veterans like my wife’s grandfather who was a Pearl Harbor survivor.

Better yet add a brief snippet from our dear friend Yoko Watkins’ memoir, So Far From the Bamboo Grove. She is a woman whose simple life, courage, and commitment to share her story with middle school students everywhere has been a model for positive change in the world.

But to do so, would have been to have written as my present self. I could not have been the seventeen year old, adolescent in the upper middle class, white suburbs of Rochester, New York.

I mixed comfortably among the black and minority students who lived in my community. An invisible wall of division remained between us and the kids bused in from the inner city. They ate at different tables and didn’t mix freely with the sons and daughters of professors, doctors, lawyers, and successful business men.

It was only in college that I discovered the existence of a gay rights movement.

I laughed at jokes about feminists lacking a sense of humor. (Part of me still does.)

“How many Mount Holyoke Girls does it take to Change a Light Bulb? “ the future Williams student asked. “None,” he answered “They are Women and it isn’t funny.”

I am caught between a cringe and a chuckle as my present self looks back on those years.

A recent graduate of Mount Holyoke admonished me not to laugh at such jokes.

Maybe the the joke is more appropriate for “Smith” students. (Don’t even go there. Even if your great aunt taught psychology there in the 1940s before taking her own life.)

Style guides suggest that “womyn” or “womynist” might be more appropriate. Please watch your pronouns it is a New Order of the Ages.

It is as hard to keep up with the changing style guides as it is to learn new cell phone and computer interfaces every few years.

There are papers to grade and essays to write, and a lawn to mow.

Maybe it is wisest to retreat even from the safety of humor and comedy clubs in our summer of media saturated discontent.

As this “white suburban” dad reflects on a quarter century of teaching history in the public schools he is confused and more than a little ashamed.

Our evolving national narrative has frayed to the point of disintegration.

There is no shared myth or consensus emerging to take its place in the rubble of our burned cities. Nevertheless, this is not 1968 or 1969.

I am thankful our historians, colleges, and families, and even churches are a lot more inclusive than they were in the late 1980s, mid 1960s or 1920s. I am mindful of how much further we still need to travel.

I hope that some of you will get your fathers, whether biological, legal or fictive, a memoir or history book written by a woman, person of color, or LGBQIA+ activist this Father’s Day.

Maybe it will help them to understand how the story is evolving and how our lurching forward and collapsing backwards has always been part of the tragedy and promise of Michelle Obama’s America.

(Do you think she would agree to be Biden’s Vice President? The Wallaces did it in Alabama in the 1960s? I think someone wrote a “Sweet” Song about it too . . .)

Neil Young didn’t approve.

At least they had a “musical duel” instead of a literal one. Let’s keep it that way, if we can.

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Meister Käßner

I have been reflecting and writing about the stories, people, and places Northwest of Boston for thirty-five years. I also teach history and manage forest land.