Updated: Jun 5
by James Fieseher, M.D.
"You’re welcome. As my father used to say, zzzzzz” ~ Prof. Cuthbert Binn.
If you were wondering, Cuthbert Binn taught “The History of Magic” at Hogwarts. In J. K. Rowling’s story, Prof. Binn taught the subject for many, many years until he died in his sleep. After that, his ghost taught the subject droning on as boringly as he did when he was alive.
The sanitized version of history is just as boring. Everyone knows that Paul Revere warned the minutemen at Concord and Lexington that “the British are coming.” George Washington was our first President after we became an independent nation. He could never tell a lie, which stemmed back to his childhood when he admitted to his father that he chopped down the cherry tree.
Except none of that actually happened.
When Paul Revere rode out on April 18, 1775, he was warning the citizens of Concord that the “regulars” or “redcoats” were coming, not the "British." The “regulars” were the red-coated soldiers from England, not the colonial militia. At the time, Concord was part of the Massachusetts colony and everyone, even the minutemen (militia) considered themselves to be British colonists. His fellow rider, William Dawes warned the minutemen in Lexington and unlike Revere, was not captured.
The first government to unite the 13 colonies after we gained independence was under the "Articles of Confederation." Our first President under the Articles of Confederation in November 1781 was John Hanson. Mr. Washington became the first elected President under the articles of the Constitution on April 30, 1789. That story about the cherry tree was fabricated by a minister after George Washington’s death.
Real history, with all its twists and turns is interesting. When we examine American history, with all its flaws and fumbles, the story that eventually emerges becomes truly something to behold. Keeping the “warts” on the nation’s founders helps us all to realize that we don’t have to be perfect to create something other nations can only dream of.
Our first national government under the Articles of Confederation was a failure. But our founders learned from those mistakes and were able to create the Constitutional system we still use today. But even this system is imperfect, as our founders understood. For example, disagreements over slavery and the treatment of slaves threatened to cancel the birth of the nation. So, the founders compromised, but they also provided for amendments and refinements for future generations to learn from those past mistakes and make a better government.
Not only could our founders never imagine the problems that future generations would encounter; they had problems in their own time that couldn’t be solved. Foremost was the topic of slavery and what to do with the thousands of enslaved people, some from families imported from Africa since 1619. Despite the high talk of freedom and equality, many of those White Americans still held onto European notions and prejudices against people with darker complexions. Confronting that reality is the first step in overcoming it.
Today we still struggle with racial inequality and injustice that has been a part of our history since Colonial rule. Sanitizing our history by restricting what can or cannot be taught only deepens the injustice and is itself a form of racism. If you’ll forgive the unintentional pun, our history becomes colorless and uninteresting. It becomes something akin to the boring lessons of Professor Binn’s history class, with only a ghost of reality.
We need to give our teachers the freedom to teach history like it’s real, because it is. Showing the flaws and the warts of our history doesn’t take way from our accomplishments, it enriches them. Realizing that our forebears were real people who made mistakes helps us to see them as human, like ourselves. Our founders successfully and often brilliantly, avoided past mistakes, but at the same time encountered and created new problems along the way. Hannah Arendt would say that is the very nature of the human condition.
The problems we face today: racism, partisanship, “cancel culture,” and disinformation (to name a few) are nothing new. The settings may have changed as well as the labels, but those problems have been with us for a while. Hiding them or punishing those who teach the truth are worthy of Putin’s authoritarianism. History has shown that such deception has a way of catching up over time.
By teaching history in its true, “unadulterated” form, we not only gain a better understanding of the conditions under which those historical figures lived, we can relate to many of those same problems they faced and had to overcome to achieve great results. We are and will be a part of that history.
Dr. Fieseher’s column originally appeared in Foster’s.
About the author:
Doctor Fieseher is a retired primary care physician living in Dover.
"Before I became a physician, I was a high school science teacher, so teachers have always held a special place in my heart for the work that they do. As history and geography have always been hobbies of mine, I felt that teaching history should engender the same sense of accuracy and attention to details that are so important in medicine. Since doctors need to be honest and transparent with their patients as a means to gain and retain their patient's trust, the same is just as important for teachers to win the trust of their students."
"I was prompted to write about the importance of teaching history as it really happened to further strengthen the trust between students and their teachers. Besides, the more we know about the details in our history, the more we can be proud of the men and women who shaped the government and culture we have today."