Focusing U.S. history on ordinary people

October 31, 1994|By MIKE ROYKO

A nasty debate has erupted over how American history should be taught.

A committee of educators has developed new guidelines that would focus more on the lives of ordinary people and minority groups than on famous individuals.

One of the directors of the project complains that the traditional way of teaching history is "very top heavy . . . hero driven . . . the only history makers are the select few; the generals and the great politicians and the few inventors and scientists and so forth."

By teaching about ordinary people, he says, the students might see "themselves as history makers . . ."

But critics of the plan say it discriminates against famous white guys, panders to the politically correct crowd, distorts history, and is anti-American and really stupid.

Actually, it is not an original idea. Several years ago, Dr. I.M. Kookie, the renowned expert on lots of stuff, wrote just that kind of history book.

It dealt with the role of obscure Americans in many of the great moments of our history.

At the time, Dr. Kookie explained his reasons for taking such an unusual approach.

"If you go to any good cowboy movie, and the hero yells that the drinks are on him, who rushes to the bar? Ordinary guys, that's who. You could not have that scene without them. If nobody rushed to the bar, the hero would look foolish, so they are very important.

"When Columbus crossed the ocean blue in 1492, who yelled: 'Yoo, hoo, land ho!'? Some ordinary guy, because Columbus was too smart to climb way up in the bluebird nest and maybe break his neck before he got famous.

"When Teddy Roosevelt yelled, 'Charge!' and went up San Juan Hill, who was behind him? Ordinary guys. What'ya think, he'd bring all his rich relatives?

"So I wrote about ordinary people to give them overdue recognition. Also, there are a lot more ordinary people than famous ones. So if they all bought my book, I'd cash in."

Unfortunately, the publishing company burned down after only a few copies were printed, so the book didn't achieve widespread recognition.

But I have one of the rare copies and it is still valuable for its unique historical perspective.

For example, there is a section on Zebediah Stump and his wife, Thelma Stump, who were farmers at the time of the outbreak of the Revolutionary War.

The book describes the wrenching ordeal they endured when Mr. Stump decided to join up.

"Fare thee well, wife, it be time for me to go do my patriotic duty."

"Patriotic duty, pshaw," Thelma said. "You just want to get out of clearing the rocks on the north 40."

"Never you mind, woman, you just be sure to feed the pigs and the chickens, milk the cow, and I have counted the exact number of children we have. So if there are any extras when I return, they will not be mine, and I will take a stick to you, hear?"

"And you stay out of ye olde roadhouses, and keep your hands off trollops, chippies and other women of ill repute, because I know what a lecherous man you be, and I wouldn't have married you myself if someone with teeth had come along."

"A pox on you, woman, and I don't want you nipping at my keg of spirits while I am gone. You know it makes you giddy, then you forget to feed the pigs."

"Be off with you then, sir, and good riddance. By the way, who is your commander?"

"I will serve under some General George Whatzis or somebody. White wig, wooden teeth. They all look alike to me."

The book goes on to tell how Soldier Stump took part in the crossing of the Delaware, fell out of the boat and died of a massive head cold. His last words were: "I'll never know if the blamed woman fed the pigs."

But the book follows several generations of the Stump family, all very ordinary people, and describes how Ebenezer Stump, a great-great-grandson, left his home when the Civil War broke out.

It describes his weeping wife, who said: "If you are killed, what will become of me?"

To which Stump replied: "If I'm dead, I don't give a squirrel's toes what becomes of you, so stop your blubbering because I am not going to be killed."

"How can you be sure?" his wife said.

"Because I am heading straight north to Canada, where I intend to remain until the hostilities are over. Just because that danged fool President Abe Whatever wants to make a fuss over a few states going their own way, doesn't mean I have to risk my hide.

"Besides, he reminds me of that tall, skinny, ugly lawyer named Abe who used to have an office up the road a piece. Never liked him. Charged me one whole dollar when they took me to court for illegally parking my mule by the village hall."

"I think they are one and the same Abe," his wife said.

"You don't say? Well, I didn't like him then, and I don't like him now. So goodbye, dear wife, and I will drop you a postcard."

"Don't bother. I am going to find someone who has better prospects than an ordinary lout like you."

"Suit yourself. But remember, like I always say, ordinary is as ordinary does. Say, I might write a book and use that line."

But he never did, or he might have made more history books.

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