VTR Date: January 17, 1980
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Frances Fitzgerald
Title: America Revised
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Not so long ago I introduced one of our programs by noting that in the dim years of my youth — almost beyond recall – I was once a student, even a teacher, of history. And I remembered that several of my teachers of history had made more of an impression upon my sense of what it means to be a human being than others who had not worshipped the Muse, Cleo. My guest, then, was Barbara Tuckman, twice a Pulitzer Prize winner, and a distinguished writer of history. My guest toady has won a Pulitzer Prize too, and a national book award, and the Bancroft Prize for History for her best-seller, “Fire in the Lake: The History of America’s involvement in Vietnam”. Now she has written “America Revised”, a volume that is intriguing for its analysis of the way historians tend to make American history as well as to record it.
Miss Fitzgerald, thank you very much for joining me today. I must admit, when I read “America Revised” in The New Yorker in those three parts, I determined then that I would meet Frances Fitzgerald. And I now have the opportunity to do so. And I determined too, that I was going to say, in almost like a Jimmy Durante routine, that I was surprised that you were surprised that historians tend to change their minds, change their mode of thinking, tend to do what Abraham Lincoln once said, “They adopt new views when they prove to be true views”. And if I may begin by quoting from “America Revised”, you said, “The surprise that adults feel in seeing the changes in history text must come from the lingering hope that there is somewhere out there an objective truth. The hope is, of course, foolish. All of us children of the Twentieth Century know, or should know that there are no absolutes in human affairs, and thus there can be no such thing as perfect objectivity”. And I wonder, given that understanding, why you sill were surprised to find the varieties of historical experiences as you did your book.
FITZGERALD: Well, I’m not intellectually surprised, you know. And no more is anyone else. But I think that there is this kind of impression that one gets from reading textbooks in childhood, that there is a kind of truth there, that these enormous volumes which are presented as the one source, very often, in a classroom represent a kind of truth of things. And it’s a sort of a lingering childish fantasy.
HEFFNER: Do you still harbor that fantasy?
FITZGERALD: No, of course not. But at the same time, I think this is a contradiction between the way history so often gets taught in the high schools – that is to say, as a set of facts which are true about this country – and the way it really is, which is a series of interpretations.
HEFFNER: Yet I have the feeling again – and forgive me for pushing it – that you’re disturbed by the fact that, after all, there is now, in a sense, no body of American historiography. There isn’t a presentation, as there had been. And you quote David Salville Muzy at great length, because this was the great textbook of my days. There isn’t anything that you can turn to for certainty. If you feel uncomfortable with that, it must mean that you want that certainty, after all. And how can we help?
FITZGERALD: NO, certainly not. After all, I mean, I’m a journalist, not a historian. I know better than even the historians that you can’t determine what’s true in any given situation. I think that this sense though, this childish sense, is what produces the same kind of reaction to journalists. I mean, we keep hoping that what Walter Cronkite, or the New York Times, or whatnot says is absolutely true. And then we have to learn all over again that you can’t believe what you read entirely, no.
HEFFNER: When you say we have to learn all over again, how good is that for a child, a growing child, to learn that you can’t believe what you read? I presume you can’t believe what you read in journals either, as well as history.
FITZGERALD: Well, it’s essential. I mean, no one person can capture the absolute truth of things. So in learning to read, the child must learn that at the same time. But any word, any series of words put together, automatically carries its own position, its own judgment, its own bias.
HEFFNER: You mean when a distinguished television commentator says, “That’s the way it is, January 1st, 1980”, that isn’t necessarily the way it is?
FITZGERALD: Well, that’s the way it is, it seems to him, that evening, it seemed.
HEFFNER: But can’t we expect more – I thought you were suggesting – from a historian? And you seem now to be saying you really can’t expect more from a historian.
FITZGERALD: No, certainly not. Certainly not. And historians know that. And furthermore, you and I and everyone else knows that when we sit down to read a book of history written for adults. I think that the deception comes for children when they are handed these ponderous tomes which are the text. And they’re given that and said, “Well, that’s what you have to learn this year”.
HEFFNER: But you seem to be so admiring of Muzy. I mean, you sort of wrapped yourself around this wonderful text that said, “This is the way it is”, and had a perception of the American past.
FITZGERALD: But Muzy, precisely, really didn’t accord with, you know, most notions of textbooks. I mean, he was a rather terrific historian for children, precisely because his text is obviously idiosyncratic. He makes rather bold judgments about people, events, and so on. He has a completely unique view of the world. And I think that anybody reading his prose would have to see that it was the work of a human hand. That it was not as so many texts are today, that sound like, sort of, computer printouts of something which had been made up by a committee in some distant part of the world.
HEFFNER: Well, that’s true, I gather, from what you wrote of it.
FITZGERALD: That’s absolutely true.
HEFFNER: That so many of the texts for children have been made up by committees. Now this is because their effort is to reflect what contemporary scholarship is, or contemporary social belief is?
FITZGERALD: Well, I would say it’s less a matter of contemporary scholarship, although, goodness knows, that does play something of a part in the new text. But that the reason for this, sort of, synthetic look of the texts today is due to the fact that the textbooks have become a battleground for all the social/political struggles in the society. That didn’t used to be the case. After the First World War, when Muzy was writing his textbook, not very many people looked at textbooks or cared what was in them. High School was not quite so important as it later became, as a national institution. And therefore, nobody bothered. Now everybody bothers. Everybody’s into it. There is, sort of, a hundred kinds of, sort of, competing pressure groups at work directing themselves, their complaints, their editions and corrections, to the publishers. And the publishers must respond to them.
HEFFNER: But if schools and teachers and texts are, in part, the source of where we get our ideas about what it means to be a human being, to be an American, let’s say.
FITZGERALD: Not a bit. Not a bit. I think that that’s part of the problem of, you know, education in this society. I men, that is it’s really a problem because it’s a democracy. There is no Ministry of Truth; no Ministry of Education which sits up there somewhere in Washington and decides how all Americans ought to be educated. The schools are a part of the democratic process, and the schools must react to public pressures this way and that.
HEFFNER: I remember, in the very early fifties I had done a little book, “A Documentary History of the United States”, and I remember getting an newspaper from New Jersey indicating that one patriotic organization had taken my documentary history and had taken a book by Eleanor Roosevelt and, happily, had taken a book by Adlai Stevensen and put them all together and said they didn’t conform in the points of view that they took with contemporary feelings, at least of that group, and said, “Don’t read them. Ban them”. To what extent are you willing to let contemporary community attitudes lead to that kind of situation in which we say today, “That man’s book, this person’s book, doesn’t correspond to what we are thinking. Therefore, off with its head, out with its pages. Ban it”. What do you think about that?
FITZGERALD: Well, that’s where it’s a problem. Because it’s not really a question of democracy when it’s the marketplace where these books sell. I mean, these books are, to a great degree, a market commodity. The publishers respond to who buys them. Now, the question is: Who buys them? And that is very different at every state. At some point, in some states, the decision is made at state level. In others, it’s made much lower down in the school districts, or perhaps the teachers themselves. But at any level, the objections of one group, however small, is taken into account. But the question is, you know, against what is it made? How do school boards resolve the fact that, you know, some people are yelling louder and longer than others? Is it necessary – I think maybe it is necessary at this point – to have pressure groups who really are interested in the intellectual quality of the work? I don’t mean apart form the politics, because politics is inseparable. But who will stand up to people who are arguing parochial, political concerns and say, “Look, let’s look at the integrity of the history”.
HEFFNER: Do you think intellectuals don’t have their own axes to grind, political axes to grind?
FITZGERALD: Of course they do. And history in the universities changes a great deal. I mean, there are fads and fashions within the universities. Different interpretations, and so on. There’s no place you can put a stop to all of this, or would want to. But…
HEFFNER: Wait a minute. You say, “Or would want to”. Now, come on. Somewhere here you are making a judgment. Somewhere in this book you’re unhappy with the state of history texts.
FITZGERALD: Well, I’m unhappy with it because I think that there’s very little attention paid to intellectual quality in these books. That is what suffers because, in fact, the universities, the academics, play a very little role, a very small role in the making of these books. They tend to be, as I say, battlefields for social forces, which is okay in itself. But that these political, directly political concerns are mot balanced by a sort of directly pedagogical educational concerns as they should be.
HEFFNER: But what is a pedagogical or educational concern? Seriously. Here is the pressure group, the pressure group that says in one of the old Morrison & Carmidger text that, if I remember correctly, in “The Growth of the American Republic”, began the chapter on the Old South with, “As for Sambo”, or began its section on the slave, “As for Sambo”. An extraordinary beginning that ws carried through, I must say, by the rest of what was written. Well, if I remember correctly again, it was the NAACP that protested ultimately.
FITZGERALD: Indeed they did.
HEFFNER: They knew that protests could be effective and knock that out. But here you had distinguished, accomplished scholars who still wrote in that way.
FITZGERALD: For children. For children. Because, I mean, the interesting thing was that, at the point where the protest, social protest took place, was 30 years after the universities had moved on this subject. Universities in the thirties began to revise their whole view of the reconstruction in the Civil War from the pure fact of taking into account that Black Americans were a part of the South. They had simply written before as though that weren’t the case. It took until the 1960s, that is to say, into the Civil Rights Movement, and more exactly, to the point where groups who were interested in this subject took over the school boards of Newark and Detroit that this racist view of history was actually challenged in the schoolbooks.
HEFFNER: Was it Orwell who wrote that wonderful little bit about “Who controls the past controls the present, who controls the present controls the future”? Who does write our history?
FITZGERALD: That was a hopeful thought of a writer. I don’t know. (Laughter)
HEFFNER: What do you mean? Why do you say “hopeful”?
FITZGERALD: Well, I don’t know. I think…
HEFFNER: An arrogant thought?
FITZGERALD: Well, I guess so, yes. You know, we writers like to think we’re terribly important.
HEFFNER: Oh, come on now. I think you’re trying to get off the spot. Don’t you think that the hand not only that rocks the cradle, but writes the texts does determine what our pictures of ourselves will be?
FITZGERALD: Well, up to a point. You know, I was brought up on the texts of the fifties, and those saw American society as completely homogeneous. It’s all essentially a racist…had a racist view of history. That didn’t determine our attitudes as children. We could see, I think, right around us – I am, after all, brought up in New York City – the difference between what they said about the United States and what was palatably true. I mean, I can’t say that we could articulate it very well. And, of course, what happened was that all of those children of the fifties became activists of the sixties, and in fact chose history.
HEFFNER: Then why did you write the book? What was your concern? I mean, obviously you must have felt that there was, there is an impact of history writing, that history texts have an impact upon our young children, and you wanted to see and expose, perhaps, how they were put together, what they did that you would take exception to. No?
FITZGERALD: No, no. That really wasn’t my motive for doing it at all.
HEFFNER: What was it?
FITZGERALD: I approach it, first of all, as a journalist, but one who would like to know more about history per se. I cannot, you know, you can’t, from reading texts, determine what kind of influence they have on children at all. I chose children’s textbooks to deal with because they’re part of popular culture. I might have chosen, perhaps, lyrics of rock songs. And my intention is not to try and criticize them or reform them or anything, but simply to measure changes in, sort of, popular consciousness over a period of 20 years, more than that.
HEFFNER: That’s interesting when you talk about what your intentions were not, and what they were. I was interested when Gary Wills reviewed your book. He said at one point toward the end of his review that the three chapters needed a fourth chapter. He wanted you, sort of, to put everything together. And I think that that’s probably what I am asking you to do: To spell out what you would want done, what you would have us do, what you would make of history texts. Are you suggesting you don’t have a…
FITZGERALD: You can’t accept what I was simply saying about them in the beginning, that here they are. They are democratic products. They are products of all of the market forces in the society. There’s nothing that any one person or one group can do to change that of to change them.
HEFFNER: But you talked also about another influence. You wanted to have the marketplace influence balanced by a kind of academic or intellectual integrity.
FITZGERALD: Uh huh.
HEFFNER: What constitutes that integrity?
FITZGERALD: Well, I mean, as I was reading these texts I didn’t know what I was going to find in them at all, when I began. I began to see that rather tremendous changes over time in certain respects; in others, they were always the same. And so I began to ask myself what these, sort of, lines of continuity were. And one of the strongest ones was simply that you could read in the introductions of them that the purpose of teaching history to children has always been, since the beginning of this century, not to have them explore the past to understand the present, but to teach them civics. The purpose of history teaching in the schools has been essentially to manipulate children’s behavior, rather than to teach them how to learn. So I began to wonder how that ever crept into these books. And I found out through looking at educational documents and interviewing teachers and so on that this has really been true since the beginning of the century. And if you look at the, sort of, important decisions that were made in the National Education Association at the time, that it’s set down there that the only history that should be taught is one that will produce certain kinds of social action, you know. It’s history taught not from the present backwards, but as it were, from the future backwards. From the kind of future that’s already determined by the wishes of the teachers.
HEFFNER: In other words, who controls the past controls the present; who controls the present…
FITZGERALD: But they do a terrible job of it. I mean, if they really could…
HEFFNER: You wouldn’t have written your book.
FITZGERALD: (Laughter) It seems to me that that is the, sort of, ultimate futility, is the futility which is so important here. Because what they’re doing is not teaching history, but giving kids instructions in patriotism, in good citizenship, and this and that. Well, supposing they could actually make everyone into perfect citizens? Well, that would be quite something. But it turns out that they’re a terribly failure on, again, an intellectual plane. There have been so many studies that show that kids retain almost nothing of that they learn from this. They’re bored to death.
HEFFNER: Oh, of the facts, perhaps. But let’s take, as an instant, your own Pulitzer-prize-winning book, your own involvement as a journalist with what happened in Vietnam. Do you think it would have taken us as long to come to the conclusions that we as a people, I believe, did come to about our involvement in Vietnam if those texts hadn’t been quite as successful in conveying to America’s young people what you called, perhaps, a racist point of view? Conveying to them a picture of the world that set Vietnam appropriately, in terms of what was for a long time public policy, and in a sense, your book and others helped to undo, they weren’t as unsuccessful as you seem to be implying.
FITZGERALD: Well, they’re not wholly without influence. But I do think that, you know, the teachers have a certain arrogance in assuming that somehow they know what patriotism is and what it should be and that, furthermore, they can manage to instill this in children. I just don’t think that it works that way; that actually, experience teaches as well.
HEFFNER: You know, it puzzled me a little. You talked about from the beginning of this century the determination, conscious and unconscious, to use history texts as civics texts; teach us how to be good citizens, along a certain line, to hold certain beliefs. But hadn’t that always been the case? Hadn’t Socrates been put to his death because, presumably, he polluted the minds of the young? Haven’t we always been concerned that our teachers – our teachers, and presumably, our texts – teach the common gospel? Teach civics, if you will? That doesn’t seem to be such a new development.
FITZGERALD: Well, if all that is meant by, you know, teaching citizenship is trying to have an informed, enlightened electorate, the way Jefferson wanted it, then it would seem to me that this aim would very much accord with what is the usual aim of doing history, which is a pursuit of the truth. Otherwise, it doesn’t.
HEFFNER: You think that is the usual aim of writing history.
HEFFNER: Pursuit of the truth?
FITZGERALD: Or it should be.
HEFFNER: Ah! Well. Now that’s different, isn’t it, that it should be? But you think that historically the teaching of history has been the pursuit…
FITZGERALD: I don’t think so. You know, in the sense that, you know, all school histories across the board, no matter what nation you’re speaking of, are essentially nationalist histories. I mean, if you look at the Canadian or the English or the French view of the War of 1812, you’ve got an entirely different picture on every side. I mean, each nation seems to have won it. And so, that is certainly the case, that in the schools, nations like to impress upon the kids the, you know, the grandeur and might and so on of their particular nation. And the United States is certainly no different than any other in this. But there’s an interesting difference in the United States because actually, if you’re a French child, you know perfectly well, in some ways, what it means to be French. We don’t really know what it means to be an American in the same fashion because we are a country of immigrants, and we contain so many differences and contradictions and we’re so much more interesting for that, that it gives an added burden to the schools when they try and work this out. So rather than, it seems to me, provide a total definition of what it means to be an American as a sort of civics instruction would try to do, why not show kids how to find out for themselves?
HEFFNER: If you are writing a history text, I presume that’s what you would do, then.
FITZGERALD: Well, in some sense, the history text is, in itself, an illusion because it means that there is one version, no matter what it is. So…
HEFFNER: Where my students never can accept when at the beginning of a semester I quote Charles A. Bearden, say, “All written history or spoken history is an act of faith. It’s what I believe took place”. Students – and I think as you said at the beginning of your book – all of us want to have someone tell us, we want to be able to disagree. But we want to assume that we’re being told what happened. And that’s a tragic approach to history. Have you thought about writing a history book, other than the kind of book you wrote on Vietnam?
FITZGERALD: Oh, no. I’m a journalist. I want to keep my journalistic status and… (Laughter) However, everything becomes the past very quickly.
HEFFNER: Wait. What’s the difference between being a journalist and a historian? What do you perceive as being the difference?
FITZGERALD: Well, the question is whether the focus is contemporary evens and perhaps working backwards for them, or whether there truly is a distant past.
HEFFNER: Now, you certainly must feel, as I do – perhaps you’d be too modest to do so, but I feel that way – that your book on Vietnam is a history, and will be considered as such. It will be revised. There’ll be those who criticize it and see new things to write. But certainly it will be considered history, won’t it? Other than a document?
FITZGERALD: Well, I suppose so. I hope so in the sense that it might live a little longer that way. But I must say that it took me so long to write it that I found myself writing history in both ways; that is to say, backwards towards the beginning of the war, the French involvement and so on, and also forwards as events were proceeding. So I felt I was doing two things at once.
HEFFNER: What did you win the Pulitzer Prize in? History? Journalism?
FITZGERALD: I guess it’s contemporary affairs, not history.
HEFFNER: Would you have preferred that it be history, and you go down with the historians, or stand up with them?
FITZGERALD: I believe in being a journalist. I like to keep the status. It also prevents me from having to be too systematic. (Laughter)
HEFFNER: Frances Fitzgerald, thank you very, very much for joining me today in this discussion on THE OPEN MIND. I must say I found “America Revised” fascinating. I think not just because I worshipped the Muse Cleo, too. Thank you very much for joining me.
And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.