Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Why not now? 

I haven't mentioned it before but I've spent the last week grading Advanced Placement U.S. History exams on the campus of my alma mater, Trinity University in San Antonio.

I've been grading a Document-Based-Question (DBQ for short) for the last three days that deals with the Revolution and its immediate aftermath.

Here's the text of the question:

To what extent did the American Revolution fundamentally change American society? In your answer be sure to address the political, social, and economic effects of the Revolution in the period from 1775 to 1800.
Following the question are several different documents from the period and the student is to construct an answer using those documents and their knowledge of the subject.

What I've found fascinating is what the students have been saying in their responses. The overwhelming majority (80% at least) of the essays contend that the Revolution led to "major" (or "fundamental" or "big" or "enormous" or "wonderful") positive changes politically, socially, and economically. Reading these essays has been like a lesson in American triumphalism and historical wishful thinking.

The students tell me the political system after the revolution was great! The society was immediately improved by the Revolution! Everyone could vote! Women's lives improved! Taxes dropped! And that, of course, led to incredible economic growth that made America a world economic power overnight!

In short, what we're getting from the best high school students in America is the usual mythological meta-narrative about the Revolution. It's the historical version of the arrogance Americans still have about their country today. These students argue that America is the best country in the world and always has been. The American success story started immediately after the Revolution. America was the best place to live ever since 1776, as soon as we broke away from those nasty Brits! It was always sunny and warm and wonderful and bountiful from that point onward.

As you can imagine, all 950 of us historians and A.P. teachers at the reading are pretty aghast at the gushing spasms of historical sweetness we've been reading.

The reality, however, for Americans from 1775 to 1800 was actually quite different. The students are even provided with hand-picked documents that make just that sort of case quite convincingly.

What was it really like? Well, when the Revolution ended, the American economy went into a tailspin that was quite an awful thing to behold. Trade dried up for quite some time (several years), there was a shortage of currency, and things were not at all wonderful for people who made their living off of trading or growing or making anything.

America's problems were compounded by the fact that, in the wake of the Revolution, states quickly raised taxes incredibly in an attempt to pay off the states' rather considerable war debts. They raised taxes so high that most of their citizens simply could not pay them, not that they had the currency to do so anyway. Taxes most certainly did not drop, quite the contrary thing happened. In contrast to the students' triumphal meta-narrative, Americans after the Revolution paid much higher taxes than they would have if they had stayed in the British empire.

In fact, in some states like Massachusetts farmers even began losing their farms to foreclosure proceedings because they couldn't pay these taxes. The situation in Massachusetts was the cause of Shays' Rebellion, the precipitating event that led to the writing of the U.S. Constitution.

So, as far as the economy is concerned, the Revolution led to big change all right -- and about all of it was for the worse.

Okay, so was there any political and social change? Well, not really. The country was still run, through property qualifications for voting and officeholding, by the same small bunch of elites that had run it during the colonial era. (This wouldn't change for most Americans until the 1820s and 1830s.) These elites made quite sure that number one was taken care of first. This was not a wonderful time to be a woman or a slave or any sort of poor person in America.

For at least three decades, Americans openly questioned whether the Revolution was the right move to have made and a large portion of a generation passed on to the Great Beyond thinking it may have been a big mistake.

So why the disconnect between historical reality and what I had to slog through every day at the reading?

I don't know that I have some simple or easy answer to that. It's not the teachers' fault, folks. The teachers have tried their best to teach their students the proper and correct history. Worse yet, I see the same phenomenon in my own classes. I teach them about how difficult the Revolutionary War and its aftermath was -- and I get the same sort of triumphant narrative in my essay exam responses as well.

Is it just that Americans don't like to entertain any sort of doubts about their leaders -- past or present? Are these students and their parents just that subservient to their leaders? To the rich and powerful in general? Can they not begin to make themselves believe that people could doubt the wisdom of the great Founding Fathers?

We've certainly seen this sort of phenomenon in American society lately. How long did it take for Americans to wake up and see the great disaster in Iraq unfolding right before their eyes? How long before they do something about it? Does American culture nowadays just teach blind subservience to wealth and power -- until the situation gets so obviously horrible that you can't draw another conclusion except that it's a disaster?

A couple of centuries ago Americans really were quite willing to be critical of their government and to wonder aloud about whether their leaders were doing the right thing.

Why can't Americans do that now?

What changed?

corrente SBL - New Location
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