Lisa’s Dilemma

Once in an old usenet debate, I got severely chided for noting that I used an episode of The Simpsons in class.  Usenet was the pre-blog forum for internet discussion, and tended to be more lively because the forums brought people of diverse perspectives in large numbers.   To this person, it was a laughable sign of how low education had sunk that a college Professor would show a Simpsons episode.   Well, it happened again — this time in an upper division Honors course co-taught by six professors from five different disciplines!

The course itself would be suspect to many conservatives.  It’s called “Truthiness in North American History,” and is designed to examine the myths and realities of the history of the primarily the US.   It’s the kind of history course Lynne Cheney would love to hate — talking about the real first Thanksgiving, the real story of Columbus, the truth about Pocahontas, and examining “historical myths” as recent as the Cold War and even 9-11.

The six of us teaching it come from diverse fields: Elementary Education, Early Childhood Education, Political Science (me), Psychology, and two from History.    There is also a wide range of perspectives amongst us faculty, ranging from some who want schools to tear down the myths (or as they would put it, lies) so that children learn the real history of the country, to one or two who see the utility of myth and question whether any history can be deemed true.   I fall in the middle, but lean towards the latter.   The theme of the class was captured perfectly by a seventh season Simpsons episode:  Lisa the Iconoclast.

In the show Springfield is about to celebrate its bicentennial, looking back at the founding of Springfield back in the 1790s as Jebediah Springfield led a group of pioneers who, after misinterpreting the Bible, were seeking “New Sodom.”   Jebediah was the hero of the town, having domesticated the buffalo and giving the people their town slogan: “A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.”    Lisa’s class is given an assignment to write an essay about Jebediah, so she goes to the local historical society to do some research.  She discovers that Jebediah Springfield was really a notorious pirate named Hans Sprungfeld who had once tried to kill George Washington.   To escape authorities he changed his name and then conned the original Springfielders, who would name their town after him.

Lisa writes her essay and gets an “F,” with her teacher’s comment that “It’s PC thugs like you that make it impossible for the rest of us to get a husband.”   Homer sympathizes, noting that he’s also been called a ‘greasy thug.’   Marge tells Lisa not to question what everyone knows true, but with her dad’s belief in her, Lisa is not about to give up.   She heads back to the historical society and confronts the curator with the truth.  He says the confession she found is a forgery, and she should not dare question the nobility of the town founder.   But the confession says that Hans Sprungfeld had a silver tongue, and Lisa demands he be dug up to check.   They dig up the body, and find there is no silver tongue.  Lisa had apparently been wrong.

Later, though, she realizes that the confession Sprungfeld wrote was on a missing piece of a portrait of George Washington sitting in the historical society (apparently Sprungfeld took it when he tried to kill Washington).   She heads back and gets the curator to confess he’d nabbed the tongue right after opening the casket.  He and Lisa then go to tell the town folk the truth.   They stop the parade (cute bit early in the show, a newspaper headline “Parade to distract Joyless Citizenry”), and the Curator tells the people that Lisa has something important to say about Jebediah Springfield.   She starts to expose him, but looks at all the people, smiling, full of joy as they come together to celebrate the bicentennial, and she can’t go through with it.  She just says that Jebediah Springfield “was great,” and lets the celebration continue.   Asked why by the curator, she says that the myth of Jebediah brought out the best in the people of the town, and give them a sense of meaning, she didn’t want to destroy that.

After the class, about 2/3 thought Lisa had done the wrong thing.   She should have told the truth.  A third agreed with her — what does it matter what really happened, the myth symbolizes the truth of Springfield embracing community values and working together.    We had earlier discussed the question of the utility of myth vs. the importance of critical inquiry.   The danger of teaching myth is it can reinforce a view that the US is an inherently good country without the faults other countries have.   That inspires patriotism, but could also lead to an uncritical arrogance, as people would simply assume that if we do something it must be good and necessary, dismissing (as the government actively tries to hide) atrocities like torture and Abu Ghraib.   That might be useful to the elite, but prevent us as a society from being able to be reflectively critical about government policies.

Yet simply debunking myths as a kind of gotcha game also seems dangerous.  The country has national holidays and traditions built around mythologized notions of history, often symbolizing something real about the ideals of the country, even if incorporating incomplete and sometimes wrong historical knowledge.   To strip that away can be confusing and cause conflict — and does historical truth really matter so much?   Lisa decided to put the utility of myth in the present ahead of getting historical facts straight.  Moreover, debunking the myth alone simply tells a new story, one that is also incomplete.

So I guess I’ll ask anyone reading this to comment: do you think Lisa did the right thing?  Why or why not?  I admit, I’m torn.  I understand both sides of the argument and lean towards saying that Lisa did the right thing, but worry that we embrace myth over truth only at our peril.   Remember my comparison of Sophie Scholl and Traudl Junge, the two German women born the same year, but who went down very different paths.   One reason Scholl could see the truth of Hitler is she was raised in a household where the parents questioned authority and the official story, injecting a sense of skepticism and a willingness to stand against the herd.  Perhaps one benefit of teaching truth would be to have more Sophie Scholls with moral courage, than Traudl Junges, who didn’t actively do anything wrong, except not letting themselves see the reality of what they were involved in.

However, I defy anyone to deny in a three hour class a 22 minute break to watch an episode like that, replete with images and references to American myths and history (you’d have to watch the show multiple times to catch them all), is not a good tool for a class like this one!

  1. #1 by Mike Lovell on September 5, 2009 - 14:32

    I admit, I’m torn on the issue. On one point, you do have the truth of the matter, then you have the popular and often vaguely told story.

    There is a good example that parallels this in the John Wayne movie, Hondo. Hondo ends up at this ranch where a mother and son are living. She keeps talking about how her husband is out searching for lost cattle, and how it was a shame he wasn’t around to meet Hondo, since they dont often get visitors. Hondo quickly figures out the husband isn’t really around period. While in town the two men run into each other, the husband being a mean character. But Hondo saves him at one point, during a chase scene involving Indians. But the husband turns on Hondo, and Hondo kills him. While searching through his pockets to see who the guy really is, he finds a picture of the little boy, and realizes who the guy he just killed is. Being honest to a fault, Hondo feels the need to tell the boy about what happened. But the mother who knows at this point through an overheard comment between Hondo and some other scouts, makes him stop just before he reveals the secret, and just wants the boy to imagine his father was a good man, and the boy never learns the true story.

  2. #2 by classicliberal2 on September 5, 2009 - 15:36

    “I understand both sides of the argument and lean towards saying that Lisa did the right thing, but worry that we embrace myth over truth only at our peril.”

    I don’t know if it’s a matter of Lisa being wrong so much as it’s a matter of the town itself being wrong. I’m also one who says we embrace myth over truth only at our peril, but I’m not ambivalent–I’m for tearing down all of these sorts of illusions, and even being pretty ugly about it, if necessary. History is so crucially important because it’s a teacher. If you don’t understand the past, you can’t learn a thing from it.

    In the fictional case of the Simpsons, the Jebediah Springfield Lisa uncovered is far more interesting than the marble statue the town worships. A pirate and con man who tried to kill George Washington? How cool is that? It’s a lot more interesting than a bloodless tamer of the wilderness who dispenses wise aphorisms.

    In the real world, I’m from the south, and there, the Confederacy lives on. No serious historian would deny the Civil War was fought for slavery or that the Confederacy itself was a white supremacist cause, but in most of the deep south, it’s an offense akin to blasphemy–in a place where blasphemy is taken more seriously than anywhere in the country–to even suggest such things. This gives rise to all sorts of mischief. Without acknowledging these things, for example, the history of race relations in the U.S. becomes incomprehensible. In their absence, the Confederacy has been adopted as an example of noble resistance to government “tyranny.” Ugly battles over the Confederate “battle flag” break out on a routine basis, with the wavers of it trumpeting it as a symbol of “southern heritage,” with no real understanding of what that “heritage” really is. And so on.

    To use another common example, the founders of the American republic are frequently posthumously converted into orthodox Christians, their genuine religious views–quite unorthodox by ANY modern standard–denied or papered over. Every reference in their recorded utterances to “god” is ripped from context, used to “prove” they were hardcore devotees, and enlisted in the cause of everything from reducing the U.S. from a religious liberty regime to that of a mere toleration regime to overtly overthrowing either, and instituting outright theocracy. Washington on his knees in prayer in the snows at Valley Forge is a powerful image. It has been depicted by artists throughout our history. It was even made into a postage stamp, at one point. The problem? It never even happened. It’s another fairy tale from Parson “I can not tell a lie” Weems. In the real world, Washington wasn’t even a particularly religious fellow (he was also a pretty lousy general, to explode another historical myth).

    The actual politics of Martin Luther King Jr.–because they would be as “divisive” today as ever–are stripped from him. The darker elements of his character are stripped from him. Everything human stripped away, he’s venerated as a secular saint, the living embodiment of the civil rights movement, a guy who once made a good speech (and even the good speech is only remembered for a few lines).

    People are much more interesting as people than as sanitized saints. More to the point, we can’t learn from the sanitized saints. We need the people for that.

  3. #3 by Scott Erb on September 5, 2009 - 20:40

    I think what causes people not to recognize that most founders were Deists is that Deists could and would speak of God in a very devout manner. Some, like Rousseau, had an intense faith in God’s goodness. Voltaire, of course, after having witnessed the Lisbon earthquake questioned whether God even cared about the creation. Often when Deism is described the Voltaire version is given as ‘what Deists believe,’ and so when people see God talked about in a devout sense, they don’t recognize that such is typical even for Deists. Moreover, political leaders do have to appear to fit in with public expectations!

    I think Classicliberal is right — it’s not just that the myths are wrong, but that if taught properly the truth can be meaningful and more interesting. Not a ‘gotcha game’ — like “Columbus was a jerk,” but a growth of knowledge — ‘Columbus represents the European view that the world was to conquer and exploit; he was typical for his era, etc.’

    • #4 by classicliberal2 on September 6, 2009 - 16:45

      “I think what causes people not to recognize that most founders were Deists is that Deists could and would speak of God in a very devout manner.”

      Yes. 18th century Deism is as dead as the worship of the Olympians, and now-reigning Christianity is the only context they have for, shall we say, “god talk.”

      “Some, like Rousseau, had an intense faith in God’s goodness. Voltaire, of course, after having witnessed the Lisbon earthquake questioned whether God even cared about the creation. Often when Deism is described the Voltaire version is given as ‘what Deists believe,’ and so when people see God talked about in a devout sense, they don’t recognize that such is typical even for Deists.”

      There was never a Church of Deism, never a rigid doctrine that was adopted and enforced by an established institution; there were as many varieties of Deism as there were Christians.

      I cross swords on a regular basis with people who use the “watchmaker god” definition of Deism, then claim that Franklin, Jefferson, etc. weren’t Deists because they once wrote something that contradicted that definition. Jefferson even called himself a “true Christian” once, and that is used as “evidence” for the proposition that he was. No effort is made to understand what Jefferson meant by that–like many Deists, he regarded Jesus as a moral philosopher of merit, and rejected pretty much everything else about doctrinaire Christianity, particularly anything having to do with the supernatural, all of which he regarded as post-Jesus corruptions wrought by people with agendas.

      This lack of understanding translates into an inability to really understand the thinking of a Jefferson or a Franklin, which, in turn, can translate into an inability to understand the notions underpinning the founding itself.

      It also ends up being exploited, used as a weapon for all manner of pernicious agenda in the present (which is usually where the internet quarrels in which I become embroiled begin–someone misusing the past).

      To return to the Simpsons, I don’t think pointing out any of this rains on anyone’s parade whose parade is worth anyone being terribly concerned about.

  4. #5 by ptola on September 6, 2009 - 05:01

    Not denying the power of myth, as it has been made clear, it does have its uses. But I’m going to take a leap and throw my lots behind truth.

    An ugly history need not be destructive. Regarding American truth/myth, for example, I feel like we would become much stronger as a nation, and much more enlightened as a people, if we were able to confront the mistakes that have been made and make the choice to move past them rather than hide them. To be able to say, that was wrong, and since we are dedicated to bettering ourselves, it will never happen again. Maybe it would be difficult, in the beginning, to make that step, but as time wore on and a greater sense of social maturity develops, it could happen.

    I think the point about misplaced arrogance is important, because today it doesn’t simply end at fanatical patriotism, it extends into our international relations, creating a significant disconnect between our country and other countries. When we claim a moral standard that we don’t keep, we make ourselves contemptible, and when we conveniently forget the atrocities of our past, we are too quick to judge other nations as disgraceful and irredeemable.

    It may be worth pointing out that myths are sometimes just as powerful when known as myth rather than history. They remain, either way, narrative affirmation of ideals.

    I suppose in the end it really comes down to a case by case basis, where you must decide if the utilitarian value of the myth is more important than the integrity of the truth and the various benefits that come with it. And that’s really a judgment call.

    • #6 by classicliberal2 on September 6, 2009 - 16:17

      “I suppose in the end it really comes down to a case by case basis, where you must decide if the utilitarian value of the myth is more important than the integrity of the truth and the various benefits that come with it. And that’s really a judgment call.”

      I can’t think of a single instance in which a myth about a genuine historical event has more utilitarian value than the truth. I don’t think mythologized history has any utilitarian value in the first place.

      If something is mythologized, there’s a reason for it, usually something important that’s being covered up by the false story.

  5. #7 by henitsirk on September 13, 2009 - 03:28

    Oh Scott, how I would love a class like that! How better to examine truthiness and myths than with popular culture?

    I think you can have your truth and your myths. They complement each other. I find MLK Jr. no less interesting and inspirational knowing that he was something of a womanizer. Maybe I don’t need people on a pedestal.

    The Founding Fathers were deists, Masons, etc. Jefferson had a child with a black slave. Adams was really grumpy. Whatever. It makes them more interesting, more human, and in a way even more mythical because of what they achieved despite dealing with the same human foibles we all have. And as you put it, debunking myths just creates a new story.

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