A review of Freedom: A History of US by Joy Hakim
Freedom: A History of US (10-volume history textbook series, plus one-volume sourcebook) by Joy Hakim
Freedom: A History of US (16-part, 8-hour PBS video series, based upon the textbooks)
Civics was once at the center of American primary and secondary education. Integrating the study of politics, history, and economics, it sought to make students into good, patriotic citizensself-governing individuals able to understand and defend the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. About a century ago, American civics education came under attack. Today, it is still on the run, but has not been altogether vanquished.
For the disciples of John Dewey and other Progressive Era educational reformers, civics was old and outdated. It was an obstacle to the Progressives' aims of correcting the flawed American founding and re-inventing America. Americans needed values more relevant to continually evolving times. To provide these new values at an early age, the reformers created "social studies." Social studies purports to be anti-ideological, objective "social science," but in fact it is driven by an ideological revisionism that now dominates America's classrooms. The ideology today goes under the familiar name multiculturalism. It was on full display in the new history standards published by the National Center for History in the Schools, the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), and other allied groups in 1995. Despite a 99-1 denunciation by the U.S. Senate and widespread criticism led by Lynne Cheney, Diane Ravitch, and others, those standards stuck and largely have dictated history textbook content since.
The point of departure for civics education was an affirmation of the American experiment and an invitation to join it. Social studies starts with embarrassment, indeed, shame about America. It takes its basic script from Progressive revisionist accounts of American beginnings, redefining the ideals of the American Revolution in Progressive populist (or multicultural) terms; then praising these redefined ideals and denouncing the American founders for their reactionary, self-interested, elitist, racist, or misogynist betrayal of them. Once this basic revision is in place, one can cheer the Progressives who come along to save the day, who recognize that the Constitution compromised away the Declaration's aspirations; that the framers were hypocrites, not heroes; and that the Constitution must be made safe for democracy. It must be made "the living Constitution," as it is called in almost every social studies textbook. The living constitution is then displayed at work in the reforms of the New Deal, the Great Society, and their successors on the road to the administrative state.
While being re-educated about the real truth of America's past, social studies students learn that the main purpose of studying history is to "respect diversity," to learn "tolerance." Whereas civics education aimed to prepare patriotic citizens, social studies aims to socialize members of a global village. A "mission statement" from the social studies department at a Michigan high school offers a typical standard: "Students will develop an awareness of roles and skills related to heritage, economics, geography, and civics, to assure successful participation in the global community representing diversity of culture." Armed with an appreciation of diversity, and having been taught toleranceof social studies-sanctioned ideasstudents are sent forth by their teachers to set the world ablaze in mandatory "service learning" projects. This compulsory voluntarism can take various forms, but many of the programs merely help to prop up the network of leftist organizations that have assisted so ably in the rise of social studies.
Freelance historian Joy Hakim collided with this social studies juggernaut more than a decade ago when attempting to secure a publisher for her 10-volume American history series for fifth graders, Freedom: A History of US. All of the American publishing houses turned her away. Written as a content-rich story, short on MTV razzle-dazzle or USA Today pie charts, her books were deemed by one major American textbook publisher not "textbooky" enough. Undaunted, Hakim took her work to Oxford University Press, where she succeeded; although her English editors joked that they would have to release the books as Freedom: A History of Them.
Hakim's series has been wildly popular, selling more than four million volumes (from the ten-volume set) since 1993. The textbook series, which runs to more than 2,000 pages, was adapted for a 16-part PBS video series, for which Hakim selected the highlights of the kids' books to create a 400-page companion volume. The single volume retains Hakim's simple prose style but is designed for older readers, and Hakim hopes it will be read in high schools. This entire project is animated by its author's two major convictions: faith in the power of narrative, and pride in the progress of the American experiment.
Hakim decided to compose her own history books after working in the textbook industry and observing firsthand the process of dumbing down that makes textbooks, in her description, "insipid" and "boring." Influenced by historian Francis Parkman, Hakim wanted her history of America to be the compelling story that it is. Garrison Keillor's description of a historian character in his novel Wobegon Boy is apt: "She had leapfrogged the feminists with their herstories, the progressive revisionists, the neorevisionists, the deconstructionists with their silly papers about history as pure text, wordplay, history as hissing wrist, as wistful hitting, as hidden story, stir-fry, antihistamine, and she had advanced despite hewing to an old school of thinking, wildly out of fashion, known as narrativism…."
Hakim's unconventional approach is evident also in what partisans of social studies label "exceptionalism." She writes: "I believe the United States of America is the most remarkable nation that has ever existed. No other nation in the history of the world has ever provided so much freedom, so much justice and so much opportunity to so many people." In Hakim's America, patriotism is a noble thing. Her one-volume book, which features a forward from President Bush and the First Lady, starts off by celebrating the revolutionary American accomplishment of religious liberty. She quotes from George Washington's 1790 letter to the Hebrew congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, in which he explains the necessity of government's protecting the "inherent natural rights" of all American citizens. America's founding, she argues, is "about opportunity for all, and equality, and fairness. Americans will fight a revolution to make those things possible." Unlike many of the textbook treatments of America's founding, Freedom is not full of denunciations born of historical hindsight. Her invitation to the reader to join the story is clear: "So come aboard and consider how you can help spread the word: freedom works."
Her introduction, a paean to "Ordinary People," gives proper credit despite its title to the extraordinary achievement of the leading men of the founding. Her celebration of "Ordinary People" is the recognition that in America all the people are entitled to equal rights and that the guarantee of equality of opportunity means that a man of humble origin (she cites Harry Truman) may become president. This equality does not obliterate distinctions, however. From the beginning of the book, and quite consistently throughout, Hakim resists the tendency of social history to assume only the perspective of those "marginalized" by history's hegemons. "There is a natural aristocracy among men," Hakim quotes from Thomas Jefferson's letter to John Adams. And, Hakim adds, "Abraham Lincoln was proof of it."
Lincoln is treated, in passages both simple and eloquent, as a hero. Hakim's best storytelling is in her chapters on the Civil War. She is consistent in choosing apt quotations of primary sources throughout the book, and nowhere more powerfully than in her direct use of Lincoln's words (the Gettysburg Address is quoted in full within the body of her narrative, for example). Her characterizations of his words and actions are largely accurate, too: Lincoln "had come to realize that slavery was like a worm in a good appleit was making the whole apple rotten. The nation could not allow an evil practice and believe in itself." Yet she also appreciates Lincoln's fidelity to the Constitution and the prudent balancing necessary to accomplish his dual objects of preserving the Union and ending slavery.
But if she is not shy about naming heroes, her choice of them (among other things) reveals that in the end she too succumbs to the Progressive temptation. She lumps in with Lincoln as our greatest presidents Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. She endorses Wilson's visionary politics, offers an uncritical celebration of FDR's New Deal, and has unstinting praise for LBJ's Great Society. Although she is rarely prone to pontificating, Hakim ends her section on LBJ preaching a Progressive gospel: "We are a rich nation. Congress and the president know that we can afford to pay for programs that will give a broad base to prosperity in America. That prosperous base will provide customers for America's astonishing productivity. Everyone, it seems will be better off. 'The pursuit of happiness' begins to take on concrete meaning." Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, takes a beating. His attempts to eliminate "bureaucratic dead ends" are treated as virtual anarchism.
These Progressive proclivities are especially evident in the 16-part PBS video series. The video series as a whole is worse than the book, and not just because Katie Couric is its narrator. Mainly using Hakim's prose and quotations from historical figures (often read by A-list actors), the videos also rely upon the comments of only one talking head, Marxist historian Eric Foner, credited as the series' "chief academic consultant." Foner, most known for his work on race and Reconstruction, published his own history of freedom in 1998, The Story of American Freedom. His story and Hakim's become strikingly similar. Her overall debt to his work seems sizeable, but nowhere so clearly as in the prominence she accords the history of organized labor. Mother Jones becomes a secular saint in the PBS series. In gratitude for his contribution to the project, PBS gives Foner ample airtime to outline his socialist outlook on America.
Joy Hakim strives to write history that is readable, and she succeedsno small feat when the prevalence of textbooks-by-committee is considered. She does not inflict upon her readers minutiae from the latest journal of irrelevancy. Her work displays some of the virtues of old-fashioned civics. But, despite an auspicious beginning, the trajectory of her narrative, like almost all social studies textbooks, becomes the Progressive trajectory, away from the founding principles. Hakim gives her readers a breezy ride through America's history, but it turns out to be a ride to the administrative state.