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!