There’s been quite a dust-up over American history lately. On one side, there’s the 1619 Project; on the other, the 1776 Commission.
The former frames our history and culture as predatory; the latter as imperfect and aspirational. Historians are now arguing over which interpretation captures and constitutes the "true" American ethos. Right behind them are the politicians fighting over what will be taught in schools going forward.
The answer "all of it" satisfies no one, it appears.
The debate occasioned a call to a former New York City middle school history teacher, historical author Tim Pletkovich, who chuckled when he heard from me. Somewhere in his files — "It’s in one of these drawers ... " — he had kept a handwritten record from 30 years ago for just such a call.
It was a collection of essay answers written in 1991 by Queens middle schoolers to various world history exams they had submitted that year. He had assembled them into a new and elucidating historical narrative which I include here for your edification. (Trigger warning: This is intended to make you smile.)
- Thousands of years ago, the great philosopher of China was Confusion.
- The author of "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" was Hallmark.
- In ancient Rome, Julius Caesar was a Democrat for life. When Caesar was in one of the government buildings in Rome, he was shot because the politicians thought he had too much control over the Democrats.
- During the Middle Ages, the Crusade was a war between the Christians and the nones. Soon after the Middle Ages, the Reformation occurred when people started to break out of the Catholic Church. Two people who broke out of the Catholic Church were Martin Luther King and Calvin Klein. Martin Luther King was a German munk. Back then, the women who donated their lives to the Catholic Church were called nones. The nones stayed in convents while the munks lived in monasteries.
- In the 1500s, Leonardo Da Vinci was a great inventor who didn’t get to make much because he died.
- During the American Revolution, Paul Rivera sailed in a ship to warn the colonists that the British were coming. Thomas Paine wrote a pamphlet for the colonists called Common Cents. During the spring and summer of December 1, 1775, the colonists said if England had not changed, they would stop buying British products from the House of Lords and the House of Comments.
- At the beginning of World War II, the prime minister of Great Britain was Wilt Chamberlain. Hojo was the prime minister of Japan and Hitler led the Germans. Hitler blamed the Judds for all of Germany’s problems. He made the Judds his escape goat. He also used the notsies against us.
- But back in the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt married Jackie Roosevelt Robinson and Jesse Jackson was related to Stonewall Jackson. Walt Disney was named after Disneyworld; Helen Keller was a deaf person who learned to hear and Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, while Harry Blackmun became the first Black man.
Pletkovich is still in touch with some of these students on Facebook and they actually turned out fine. They never stopped discovering.
Maybe it’s the future we should be debating. The past is too fluid.
William F.B. O'Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.