Diorama history

Anna Quindlen

June 27, 1991|By Anna Quindlen

A POSTCARD from a reader (male) asks the question:

"Has any corpus femalus ever contrived and composed any work of art remotely qualified to be placed within 100 meters of the great masters: Da Vinci, Titian, Velasquez, Botticelli, Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Picasso, Goya, Eisenhower, MacArthur, Caesar, Alexander the Great, Darius, Genghis Khan, Sala-deen, Shelley, Milton, Byron, Einstein . . ."

(I particularly like the juxtaposition of Goya and Eisenhower.)

A co-worker (female) has drafted a reply in a white heat of indignation:

"Don't forget Sappho, Virginia Woolf, the Brontes, George Sand, George Eliot, Eudora Welty, Camille Claudel (whose work was lifted by Auguste Rodin), Flannery O'Connor, Emma Goldman, Marie Curie, Golda Meir, Gandhi (Indira), Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, Helen of Troy, Queen Elizabeth I, Florence Nightingale, Mother Teresa, Benazir Bhutto, etc. . . ."

This sort of correspondence is one reason why I am inclined to like a plan by a panel of teachers and scholars to overhaul the social studies and history curriculum in New York state.

It is an overhaul that will suggest that America was already a nation with inhabitants and culture when Columbus pulled up, and that people we call minorities here are majorities elsewhere.

It is an overhaul that says that teachers can communicate the commonality of life as an American and at the same time educate about the considerable differences between ethnic and racial groups. Some members of the panel disagree with its findings, complaining that they place too much emphasis on differences, rather than common values.

When I was first learning history, things were less complicated. I learned about brave missionaries who tried to bring religion to the heathen Indian and got a tomahawk for their trouble. Much of the rest was along those lines: good guys, bad guys. (Guys. All guys. None of them black except George Washington Carver.) Diorama history.

Through it all ran one motif: that America was always right, that we were the center of the universe and all other countries corollaries.

England, for example, was important because it once owned us. Africa didn't exist. Russia was big and bad. I see a connection between such a curriculum and a certain jingoistic American mindset, which felt compelled at every turn to assert superiority.

There's no doubt that the new mindset will go too far in the other direction. I do not think it particularly important to call slaves "enslaved people" to make vivid the iniquity. I do not think it will lead to the denial of the vast contributions of European cultures if we discuss their shortcomings.

My correspondent makes a point about the secondary role of women. A good teacher would not deal with that by only teaching about important men.

She would illuminate the strictures placed on the roles of women in different cultures at different times, illuminate contributions women made that were different from those of men and changes in those contributions today.

Many good teachers are already teaching this way, realizing that dates and dioramas are no longer enough and that any child in America knows that we are not all one happy family.

The discussion reminds me of the moment in "Main Street," Sinclair Lewis' marvelous novel of a woman disenchanted by the dull sameness of a small town, when she says to her husband, "I want to see people as they are."

"Well, don't forget to see people as other folks see them as they are," he replies.

Would we ever dissect a frog and ignore some of its parts? Why dissect a nation that way? That ignores the most important thing about America, which is not its vaunted superiority, but its diversity, the fact that to be American means to come from somewhere else.

And it ignores something important about the old history curriculums. They were boring. The moment when a student says "I never thought of it that way before" is often the moment when her mind comes alive.

Change like this is never easy. But I can say from experience that it is not easy, either, to learn all the important nuance that was left out 30 years ago. Nor is it desirable for our national identity to do without it.

lTC

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