“You see this boat, children? Do you know who used to row boats like that? Slaves. All slaves. They were chained to their oars, and they were whipped to make them work, and if the ship sank they went down with it. Isn’t that horrible?”
I manage to hold back my sigh and grimace. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t much matter if these sixth-graders swallow a grossly incorrect tidbit of information about ancient history. Certainly it would be both foolish and wrong to interrupt her in front of the class and undermine her authority by explaining that she’s thinking of Turkish galleys from nearly two thousand years later than the Greek trireme she is pointing to. I wait until the end of class, while the students are chattering, to go up and quietly tell her that those rowers, far from being slaves, were the core voting bloc of the world’s first democracy. That rowing a trireme was highly skilled labor, and they took pride in it, and the fact that their work was turning their little city-state into an empire. That their importance in both war and peace had won them the franchise; that we vote today because they rowed back then. That they did go down with the ship a lot–but it didn’t stop them from signing up in droves, because the back-breaking work made them the thriving middle class of the Greek world. She nods and thanks me; I don’t know how much she’s taken in. By and by, the end-of-day bell rings.
This happens pretty frequently, though happily less often in history or social studies class (the teacher above was introducing the class to a play about ancient Greece for Language Arts). There may have been a time when we were prone to romanticize the past, and we still do, but generally only for American History–that is, for the part of the past which shapes our own identity. Medieval European history is described as a monolithic lump of a thousand years or so when people were ignorant, dirty and violent, and (though we never say as much) the impression is given that Europe at the end of the Middle Ages was much like Europe at the beginning. Until the Renaissance came along (quite abruptly, as the story tells it), peasants thrashed around in the mud with their sticks to feed louse-ridden barons and gold-hoarding clerics. Ancient Greece and Rome are usually given more reverent treatment, but not always–hence the “slaves.”
Other countries and eras are seldom mentioned outside of social studies classes, where they are given a preposterously token treatment purely for the sake of political correctness. Children cannot help gathering the vague impression that the Western world was a busy, active place, while “Western Africa” and “Pre-Columbian America” do not contain enough history to take up more than a dozen pages apiece. And those dozen pages are largely incomprehensible due to the compression involved.
Seldom does anyone realize just how ancient our attitudes towards these things are. When I was a child, we were just starting to learn that Columbus’s contemporaries did not think the world was flat. That one goes back to the Renaissance, and we were still parroting it more than halfway through the Twentieth Century. Other slurs against the Medievals are longer-lived, because they were invented during the Enlightenment. Most popular and deeply erroneous ideas about the Crusades, for example–that Crusaders were opportunistic and greedy, that they massacred routinely, that the Crusades were a form of unprovoked aggression and imperialism–were put forth by those men, who had many reasons to loathe Catholicism and a fashionable interest in Islam. In all cases, the point of the distortion, not always consciously expressed, was to denigrate the old ideas, the old order, the old era, so as to increase the appeal of the new.
On the other hand, we still treat Greece and Rome somewhat reverently mostly because that batch of Europeans from the 1700s happened to like them, and held them up for a model. That ancient Romans invented crucifixion and decimation was glossed over; the sickening atrocities of, say, the Peloponnesian War were ignored. Just as today we idolize Thomas Jefferson, who was possibly the most morally repulsive public figure of his day, inadvertently parroting his personal propaganda machine. We have to, because he’s very nearly the bedrock of our national self. This is the way that lies can live for a long, long time.
Students always ask me why they have to learn this subject or that. They ask it most often about history. I can never quite put it into words they could understand, the way that a good understanding of a present requires a correct understanding of the past. It would take too long to tell them that they’re standing on layer after layer of accumulated illusions. Or that we’re still putting down new layers today.