Saturday, February 24, 2007

Sutter's Mill Gold Summons Termite Swarms

I've been reading my daughter's history text lately in order to help with her schoolwork. She's learning about the history of California. Right now, she's studying the Gold Rush of 1849 and the following decade. Here's what I've learned.

Gold brought lots of people to California. White, American men were rapacious, swarming beasts that devoured everything in their path, sort of like termites.

Here we see a large group of white, American men raping the land, slaughtering the natives and stealing whatever they can.

White, American men oppressed everything: Blacks, Chinese, the Native Americans, the Mexicans, the environment and everyone and everything else of value. The history book consists of stories of individuals struggling against this oppression tied together by the general narrative of the Gold Rush. There are a few descriptions of what life was like at the time as well.

In previous chapters, we learn that the Spaniards were rapacious beasts, devouring everything in their path. We never learn that the Aztecs, the Mayans and everyone else were the same. What would have been more interesting to me would have been a technology table for the people involved. Why did the Native Americans end up on the short end of the stick? Was it because they didn't have a written language and struggled to pass down knowledge from one generation to another? Was it because they hadn't discovered the Scientific Method? What happened to make the white devils more effective competitors?

I want the school to teach my daughter what it takes to be successful in life. Right now all it seems to be teaching her is to loathe her own kind. It would be interesting to have a conversation with the authors of these books and find out if they even know what the competitive advantages were. I wouldn't be surprised to find total ignorance.


Kelly the little black dog said...

Unfortunately the portrayal painted by your daughter's text book isn't off the mark. What is missing, and you point this out, is context. Think about what the rest of the world was like at this same time. Slavery was thriving in the south. Indentured servitude was alive and well in the west. The Irish were being starved off their home land. The Scottish highlands had just been cleared. Australia was actively involved in the genocide of the aborigines. Japan was up to no good in Asia. The countries that would later become Germany were about to embrace communism as an alternative to their current oppressive government. Europe was in a perpetual state of war. Life was cheap the world over. I just saw a photo exhibit of Chicago tenements that was stunning in the level of poverty exhibited. It made the Grape of Wrath look luxuriant! Life for the common person was pretty brutish and unpleasant.

The atrocities perpetuated in California were no exception. Sutter lost everything to the rapacious swarm of people hunting for gold. The first wave of gold seekers actually came from Asia. Huge numbers of chinese came to California to seek their riches. As with most recent immigrants, they were exploited horribly by their own people. Eventually when enough white americans made it to California, the chinese were banned from owning claims - this is where the stereotype of the chinese laundry and restaurant came from. The mexican land owners lost almost everything when the California became independent. The only ones who didn't, had married Anglos into their families.

It is commonly accepted that California choose to remain a free state because the average miner was afraid of being replaced by slaves. There was nothing altruistic, just simple self interest. The government there was so horribly corrupt, that it resulted in California's infamous ballot initiative.

I'm sorry that you feel that your daughter is being taught to loathe her own kind. When I grew up learning this, I was able to separate what had been done in the past from what was being done now. That was then, this is now. Just as modern Southerners separate themselves from their region's horrific past of slavery. You are not responsible for your grandfather's sins. You're just responsible for how you behave now.
Let me play the devil's advocate by asking if you feel that the sins of the Soviets should be hidden from your daughter in order that she not learn to loathe her own kind?It is really no different.

So you may ask, why bring this up at all. It is important to remember the past so as not to repeat it. It is also proper to not diminish and negate the history of other people's. Just as it is wrong for the Japanese to white wash what they did to the Chinese and Koreans during two world wars, it is proper to acknowledge the evils of our past and declare that they were evils not to be perpetuated again.

Foxfier said...

When textbook writers very carefully target a select culture to show as being highly negative, while ignoring most if not all possitives, they are trying to teach kids to hate that group.

Works here, works in Iran. (Just different targets.)

Kelly the little black dog said...

I guess it is an issue of balance. Ignore your unpleasant past and your hiding something. Obsess on it and I agree you are presenting a skewed view. The hard part is getting everyone to agree what is enough and yet not too much.

My experience with grade school (K-12) text book publishing is that what you're seeing has more to do with incompetence and pandering. The publishing houses don't take these books as seriously as the college texts. They have significantly more errors and are more poorly written.

K T Cat said...

It felt a lot like the primary purpose of the text was to make sure every major special interest group was represented by someone.