How honest American history can cultivate gratitude
Attending public schools in the 1970s and 80s, my teachers had no problem managing the dual task of celebrating what was great in American history and pointing out its moral failures. We were taught to appreciate the brilliance of the Founding Fathers, the courage of our fellow citizens, and America’s many contributions to the world. At the same time, our teachers pulled no punches on America’s moral failures. We learned about slavery, the Trail of Tears, the women’s suffrage movement, company stores, the Sacco and Vanzetti Trial, the Ku Klux Klan, Japanese Internment Camps, the Red Scare, Jim Crow—all by the end of ninth grade!
My educational experience instilled in me a sense of gratitude and optimism for America. But this is regrettably absent from our culture today.
Before the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, schools taught a uniformly patriotic tale of America’s greatness that ignored or downplayed our country’s shortcomings. It’s easy to see how this could lead to victim-blaming—if our society is perfect, then anyone who fails to do well must simply lack the necessary determination.
Today, however, many teachers stake out the opposite extreme, reducing American history to a zero-sum power struggle between “the oppressed” and “the oppressors.” Through this lens, the story of race relations in American history becomes simply white folks subjugating non-white folks. Very often, this is not presented as part of our story, but the essence of it. America is defined by various systems of oppression that, according to some, are a permanent fixture of our society.
This new narrative renders gratitude impossible and only feeds resentment and despair. Those who declared principles of freedom, fought for them, risked their lives for them, and even died for them—men and women of many races—are expurgated from our national memory. They are to be removed from places of honor when we find them deficient in some respect. And they will always be found deficient. Gratitude for the Founding Fathers becomes less than pedestrian; it is the honoring of contemptible people.
When we consider the current reality of race, sexuality, and gender-identity, we know that we have not yet arrived at the ethical ideal, but are we ever encouraged to stop and think how far we have come in the past decade, fifty years, or century? Would any of us like to roll the dice again and be born at any other time or in any other place and belong to some marginalized group? Is it wrong to stop and enjoy a little gratitude, if just for a moment, for what others have made possible? Might it not boost our morale, encourage more work, and improve our mental health just a bit?
A narrative that fixates on one group oppressing other groups; that proffers no hope for improvement; that is unable to see progress; that discards heroic efforts by imperfect men and women; renders gratitude impossible. As the research makes clear, this is not conducive to our health and well-being. Neither is it helpful to be gripped by the fear that your government is hopelessly corrupt, bent on taking away your rights, and ushering in a socialist regime. Cynicism and scorn for our fellow citizens and obsessing on their failures leads to shallow historical analyses and an unhealthy self-perception.
A different narrative, which appears more honest, accurate, critical, and helpful, is the same one that Martin Luther King Jr. embraced. With regard to race, he taught, “The American people are infected with racism—that is the peril. Paradoxically, they are also infected with democratic ideals—that is the hope. While doing wrong, they have the potential to do right.”
King had no trouble pointing out the failures of his fellow citizens, but he was also adept at recognizing their virtue. This was the balanced narrative I grew up with: imperfect people were slowly making progress in living up to the ideals they set for themselves. The arc of American history is bending slowly toward justice. That is something to be grateful for.
And yes, we can even have gratitude for men who owned slaves! “There is much in the life of Jefferson that can serve as a model for political leaders in every age,” King said. “He came close to the ideal ‘philosopher king’ that Plato dreamed of centuries ago. But in spite of this, Jefferson was a child of his culture who had been influenced by the pseudo-scientific and philosophical thought that rationalized slavery.”
If King could assert this, we can too.
Conservatives, by definition, focus on the good that has been handed down and that we now enjoy. Liberals orient themselves more toward the good that can be brought about. Both are necessary for a society to thrive, and both lack something important that they can learn from the other. The liberal sentiment, unchecked, results not only in a lack of gratitude, but can easily lead to ingratitude. For those of a more liberal bent, they should be mindful of this. Unchecked conservatism, on the other hand, can easily result in complacency. Conservatives often forget that the people they admire and to whom they feel so much gratitude were the radicals and progressives of their own day. They were not content with the good they had received, but fought for something greater. Proper gratitude means appreciating their boldness, unwillingness to accept the status quo, new ideas, and radical courage. Conservatives need to realize that their heroes were those people who were not conservative in their own times.
With that in mind, maybe they can even find some gratitude in their hearts for some of the liberals stirring things up today—and perhaps that can be the start of a new culture of gratitude that extends beyond its current bounds.
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