That’s a loaded question, one not answered without controversy. In an ideal world (has anyone found it yet? let us know), historians are supposed to write history without bias of any kind, allowing the facts to “speak for themselves.” Truth is, this simply doesn’t happen because politics and theory often distort the selection of the facts. The recent Texas textbook controversy in which conservative members of the Texas Board of Education brazenly decided which history texts were ‘appropriate’ for the state’s students to use in school is a case in point, a symptom of the ongoing problem of political agendas trumping history. In the case of Texas, its board members opposed textbooks written by supposedly left-leaning historians whose interpretations of U.S. history toed a more ‘politically correct’ line and frequently minimized or omitted aspects familiar from more traditional accounts. For example, the board was troubled by the lack of attention accorded to the role of the ‘founding fathers’ and their religious convictions. These historians appeared unpatriotic, even downright treasonous in these Texans’ eyes. They were, from this perspective, cunning pied pipers, seeking to lure young, impressionable students down the road of historical misinterpretation. So, in an effort to save history, the board decided to revise it according to their own agenda. Do two wrongs make a right? Should history be fought on the political and religious battlefields? Can we exclude one portion of history and exchange it for another without damaging the whole? All of us, historians and the public alike, need to compromise and seek a comprehensive approach to the past. Too often history has been treated selectively, as a book from which one side or the other has highlighted a few passages to embarrass or undermine its critics without regard for the context and unity of the whole. Without an appreciation of the broader picture our capacity to understand the past is diminished and our ability to draw insights for the future is impaired.
For those of you unfamiliar with the controversy, here are some suggestions for further reading (from varying viewpoints):