How to Shock Sophomores: Tell Them the Truth About U.S. History

Steve Russell

There’s a word, sophomoric, that describes one of the few downsides of the professoring trade. If you teach college students, it describes your very own personal Groundhog Day. Most of it is the fault of our national consensus that K-12 students shall not be exposed to certain information, historical and literary.

The history lies normally involve the seamy side of the country making the decisions what will be taught. It’s the Japanese finessing the rape of Nanking or the Germans the Shoah. Or the American myth that the wealth of this continent was built from the pluck and ingenuity of the colonists rather than the labor of African slaves on land expropriated from the indigenous owners.

The literary lies involve truths about the human condition that cut too close to the bone, such that learning about them too quickly is thought to harm the children when in fact the major harm is to the composure of the adults tasked to teach “adult” literature.

At a good university, the shackles come off, a release that often gives us stunned freshmen and arrogant sophomores. How many times can you watch otherwise bright kids discover Ayn Rand and think they’ve found real literature or real philosophy? Or grade a political science term paper that puts forward the profound truth that all is hypocrisy?

Yes, most of them get over it soon enough, but you do get weary.

Magna Carta, which they’ve been taught was the founding charter of freedom and ancestor of the U.S. Bill of Rights, did nothing immediately but coerce one king’s agreement to treat his vassals more fairly. That is, we conflate the rights of man with the interests of a few English lords.

Sophomores have the same reaction to the Founders of the United States owning slaves or stealing from Indians. The immediate reaction, when the warts on the Founders are new information, is that the historical narrative is all wrong. How could these scumbags have advanced democracy?

When so much has been hidden in K-12, it takes a year or two to internalize Martin Luther King, Jr.’s concise reformulation of Theodore Parker, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

It is literally true that without the ideas in Magna Carta, humankind can’t get to the Bill of Rights. That remains true even if it’s also true that the vast majority of English people—let alone the people of the world—were in exactly the same condition after Magna Carta as they were before. The pace of freedom may have been glacial, but glaciers, geologists claim, wield great power.

So it was with the U.S. Constitution, that the sophomores would be quick to point out empowered only white male property owners and completely shunned the soaring rhetoric Thomas Jefferson put in the Declaration of Independence. Perhaps the Founders had by that time thought through the implications of holding it to be self-evident that “all men are created equal.”

Jefferson, the philosophical founder of the Democratic Party under the names Anti-Federalist and then Democratic-Republican, valorized the yeoman farmer and took him to be the common man. But the yeoman farmer owned his farm, and land was wealth in those days, land stolen from people already farming it who evidently were not “created equal.”

Still, Jefferson was a genuine democrat because he wrote and governed at a time when there was still feudalism, although it was declining. In the feudal system, the monarch granted land to his supporters and the labor of the people who actually farmed the land was part of the deal. In return, the vassal lord was bound to send fighting men whenever the king decided to have a war. The fighting men were…you guessed it….the same folks whose labor came with the land.

The quaint custom of droit du seigneur was gone by Jefferson’s time if it ever really existed, but the right of the lord to bed a new bride before her husband captures the flavor of feudalism and why the thinkers behind the American and French revolutions were leaping ahead into a world where power relationships were seriously rearranged.

Still, what the U.S. Founders created was equality before the law as among white, male landowners. Just like what the Magna Carta created was due process of law for English noblemen and nobody else.

That does not mean that the Magna Carta or the American and French revolutions lacked significance. Both changed the world, but they required a lot of time to grow into their promise.

What Andrew Jackson, the American avatar of ethnic cleansing, did was incremental once more, but looked very important to the people who benefitted. Jackson was the first POTUS elected by the modern Democratic Party and he brought in all white males, propertied or not. Still, his misdeeds explain why so many generations of Cherokees were Republicans.

It would be over 100 years after Jackson before nonwhite GIs, returning from WWII with a new understanding of their power, forced racial integration of first the armed services, then higher education, the public schools and all public accommodations. Voting rights were even harder, and those rights are still being threatened today.

Note that all this progress or lack of it is merely about equal regard before the law, because that is all the law can accomplish. The law does not shape the hearts of men before the hearts of men shape the law, but what the law can do is force bigots to interact on some level with classes of people they would deem to be subhuman.

This brings us to the heaviest lift of all in the project of enlarging our circle of concern, sex discrimination. Legalized sexism is another anvil we drop on the heads of sophomores, and that story requires another column.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.

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