In Search of Whose History?

THE arrival of Nelson Mandela's autobiography, ``Long Walk to Freedom,'' on the bedside book pile has diversified somewhat the collection of presidential biographies in my readings-in-progress: The South African president is neither dead nor white nor of European descent.

The United States has lately experienced a fit of concern about the teaching of history. The National Center for History in the Schools, at the University of California at Los Angeles, released in October a 271-page curriculum guide to the teaching of American history in public schools. The outcry was intense: The new standards are too ``politically correct,'' too dedicated to airing dirty historical linen (the Ku Klux Klan, the anticommunist ``witch hunt'' of the 1950s), and too minimizing of the role of heroes like Civil War generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee.

A first decision on the part of anyone who would write History is, Whose stories shall we tell? It is a decision that has often been made unawares.

History is, in part, what the people make of it. History that is not internalized by the people, and subsequently drawn on as a resource to inform contemporary decisions, is like an invention that remains in the lab without ever being brought to market. It makes sense for history teaching to focus on the groups and individuals and events that made a difference in the society over time. This may be an argument for devoting more attention to the Bill of Rights than to the Aztecs or the Eastern empires. It may also be an argument for considering social and cultural figures along with generals.

The view that ``history is the biography of great men'' has come under great fire lately, not least because ``men'' is seen to be too gender-exclusive. Yet biographies can illumine whole periods. One follows a hero - or heroine - through the plot line of history as one follows a melody through a symphony.

Moreover, not only does it make sense to consider the history that made a difference, it makes sense to consider the people on whom we have information. We can't learn from those whose stories we don't have.

A more open, egalitarian society will value the contributions, the stories, of all its members, and be the richer for it. The Mandela autobiography will no doubt open a whole world to readers unused to thinking of dirt-floored huts as the stamping ground for world leaders.

But meanwhile, it makes sense to make the most of the archive we have.

Management guru Peter F. Drucker, in his book ``The Effective Executive,'' draws heavily on the considerable historical record of the leadership experience of such men (the term is used advisedly) as George C. Marshall, Army chief of staff during World War II, and Franklin Roosevelt's aide Harry Hopkins.

Now a distinction must be made between Drucker's particular use of history and the schools' teaching history for citizenship education. Drucker cites Marshall's decision to expose Dwight D. Eisenhower, then an up-and-coming Army major, to war planning as an object lesson in staff development. Drucker discusses Harry Hopkins's ability to achieve a great deal even as illness severely constrained his working hours as an example of superb time management.

But the point stands: We learn from the stories we have.

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