In his thoughtful letter to the ADN published Jan. 3 (”Teach history honestly”), Randall Burns reviewed the history he was taught in public schools in the 1950s and 1960s, a story of a triumphant America embracing and defending the freedom of its white citizens to take what they wanted from the land and whoever lived on it and do whatever they wanted on the assumption that they and their system of government were superior to any others. I was taught the same history, a bit earlier than Burns.
He called for a new history to be taught — one that, while it recognizes the arrogance, prejudice, cruelty and wantonness of the American past, simultaneously celebrates the commitment to democracy, to equality and liberty and their defense, the many advances in science, its industrial and economic might, the contributions in two world wars and the Cold War, and above all, the evolving recognition and protection of human dignity. These things exist in America, and only by knowing them all can we truly know ourselves.
I hope Burns knows that this history is in fact being taught now. It’s being taught not just in responsible advanced placement and gifted and honors classes in our high schools, but also in general American history survey classes. In our universities, it’s being parsed in introductory American history courses, and explored in depth and intensively discussed in the more advanced courses, under the tutelage of informed and sensitive teachers.
This is true, at least, in Alaska and most other states. There are some states, though, where extremist activism has led state legislatures to mandate a vanilla, conflictless, unrealistic story, one similar to but more whitewashed even than the exceptionalist version Burns and I were taught. Those mandates have led teachers in those states to self-censor their work to avoid attacks from excited parents, as well as to prevent confrontations with administrators that might threaten teachers’ jobs. This is a tragedy of enormous proportions, for not only does it take away teachers’ freedom; it also tramples students’ freedom to understand and thus to judge their and their fellow citizens’ thoughts and actions in full knowledge of who they are because of who we have been, and to see the future more clearly. Perhaps the greater tragedy is the theft of those students’ freedom to comprehend and work toward alleviating the pain and suffering of the disadvantaged and marginalized among their fellow citizens.
As terms, “freedom” and “liberty” are used interchangeably today. Students in contemporary courses may learn that this has not always been the case. The American founders and many who came after them distinguished between them clearly, “liberty” meaning the freedom one has within a larger and broader social structure, freedom within a network of restraint and order, within a system of rules, “freedom” meaning a more general absence of imposed encumbrances, such as slavery, or the suppression of dissent. Jefferson wrote “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” meaning freedom within a system of restraint, mostly self-imposed. Lincoln wrote that the new nation the founders brought forth on this continent was “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
But in the latter half of the 20th century, the distinction became blurred. In the 1960s, the civil rights movement favored “freedom” rather than liberty, freedom from oppression. Already during the Cold War, American conservatives had redefined “freedom” to mean free markets and maximum consumer choices, in opposition to communism. “Liberty” lost its distinct meaning.
In a timeless 1958 essay “Two Concepts of Liberty,” the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin distinguished between “negative” and “positive” freedom — the former being the absence of imposed restraint, “freedom from,” the latter meaning self-mastery, the freedom to pursue and achieve chosen goals, “freedom to.” Today, with people operating within self-reinforcing loops of “likes” on social media, the notion of negative liberty seems a proper characterization of their thinking. Certainly, those who imagine students are being indoctrinated to hate themselves and their culture because of its past cruelties and failures seem to manifest a desire only for a negative freedom.
Burns is correct in advocating for today’s students a learning atmosphere in which they can know the full panoply of their history — one that will “instruct us in how to work to govern together for the benefit of all and support the daily struggle to eliminate inequality.” This is a positive freedom, a liberty, that will benefit us all.
Steve Haycox is an emeritus professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
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