- Telling the History of All Americans:Milton Meltzer, Minorities, and the Restoration of the Past
In January 1987, new restrictions were announced by the South African government outlawing public discussion, dissemination, and teaching of an "unauthorized" alternative curriculum. Cited among the unauthorized materials was a new history course that the National Education Crisis Committee, the most representative black educational organization, attempted to introduce into the 7,000 black schools controlled by the state-run Department of Education and Training. Under the slogan "people's education for people's power," most black organizations hoped such courses would draw students back to the schools they had boycotted the year before. The alternative history course was designed to enhance students' critical skills to challenge the standard South African curriculum which, as one NECC executive member put it, teemed with "historical and political discrepancies, omissions and distortions, aimed at maintaining white minority rule while belittling the majority. . . ." One of the more infamous of the distortions in the standard curriculum characterizes South Africa as a nation of immigrants, a territory unsettled until the simultaneous arrival of Europeans and Africans (Weekly Mail 5).
Meanwhile, in the United States, the motion picture industry was introducing American children to what appeared to be an innovative approach to historical instruction. Stephen Spielberg's An American Tail told the story of turn-of-the-century immigration to America through the trials and tribulations of Fievel Mouskewitz, a Jewish rodent fleeing the marauding Cossacks of Russia. The purported charm and invention of the film impressed many film critics and seemingly gratified audiences, making An American Tail one of the few recent full-length animated cartoons to achieve box-office success. More knowledgeable commentators, however, were aghast at the ethnic stereotyping of the characters (albeit in the guise of mice) and were particularly repulsed by the film's conclusion that preached deportation (albeit of cats) as a solution for domestic strife (Maslin).
The juxtaposition of two such varying examples of popular history might invite invidious comparisons: the former seems so acute, the latter [End Page 7] so trivial. However, the two examples present the history of the poor and oppressed as a contested area of learning. Whereas, in South Africa, the conflict is overt and clear-cut-critical knowledge of the past is seen as a means to empower black children caught in the apartheid system-the American situation is more subtle and complicated.
Although readers may insist that the comparison only suggests the triviality of the popularization of the past in the contemporary United States, we may gain insight if we address the distortions of Spielberg's cartoon epic in the light of American scholarship on minorities in the last generation. Inspired by the movements for social justice and change of the 1960s, a veritable revolution in the analysis of the lives and institutions of immigrants, blacks, and women occurred within the halls of academe in the following generation. The burgeoning field of social history re-examined previous historiography's relegation of these groups to irrelevance, and through new techniques and evidence reinterpreted the "ways in which the behavior of working people affected the development of the larger culture and society in which they lived" (Gutman xii). Social history is hardly without its faults; nevertheless, the field has produced perhaps the most provocative and inventive works in recent historiography, requiring even the most conservative of critics to take note of its redefinition of the study of the past.
Yet, as Spielberg's film and its many admirers indicate, the fruits of this historiography remain largely in the preserve of the university. One need only listen to the voices emanating from the horrendous racial incident in Howard Beach, New York, or, less sensationally to students' ideas about other racial and ethnic groups, to realize that the new historiography failed to have an impact on popular ideas about the behavior and beliefs of minorities. The reasons are hard to discern but, at least in part, seem attributable to the incapacity or disinterest of intellectuals to insure that their work reaches out to a general audience. It is certainly paradoxical that intellectuals of a neo-conservative stripe, who claim that they...