2008-10-31 / Columnists

The Progressive

History's Lessons
Commentary By John Paul Culotta

As autumn begins colleges, universities and schools begin their fall semesters. The debate regarding how our schools are fairing and whether our young people are receiving an adequate education becomes more evident. What is often not mentioned is how American history — the narrative of our country's formation, development, and uniqueness — has dramatically changed from the Eisenhower era. When I was a youngster, American history emphasized the importance of the influence of Europe in our nation's development. In short, there was a distorted view that the white population developed the nation. The majority population accepted this viewpoint.

Our nation is a nation that worships individual initiative and freedom. Collaborative action is not often celebrated. Americans prefer to consider that their state in life is based on their labor and pluck.

This view of our nation, generally celebrated by the politically conservative, does not stand up to scrutiny. Our nation, a frontier nation, needed community cooperation for survival. It is true our nation was unique and the individual had to use his ingenuity and courage to surmount difficulties in our rural and urban frontiers, but from our beginning to today our government helped Americans whether through land grants, tariffs that helped industry develop, a system of patent registration, and development of a civil service system.

When I was a youngster the British Empire was beginning to break up; the third world countries of today were still often colonies or possessions of white Europeans. Jim Crow reigned in large parts of the nation. Native Americans were never considered as persons that were worthy of respect but as people whose culture was inferior to the dominant culture. Asians were barely mentioned. Women were only mentioned as suffragettes.

Most Negroes, as the African Americans or blacks were categorized, lived in abject poverty. Their lives were daily humiliations because of their pigmentation and their economic status. Often, I believe many white Americans, then and now, feel the status of black Americans, as an underclass, is deserved or justified because of the perceived and sometimes actual dysfunctional nature of black family life and the high rates of crime in the communities in which blacks live.

Family life for all races is under attack — not by homosexual partnerships or marriage, abortion or infidelity. Dysfunctional family life is evident in all American communities. Economic, social or racial barriers affect moral standards. Adequate living wages, guaranteed universal health care coverage and safer working conditions will do more to secure family unity than a ban on homosexual unions.

History has given us many examples of how government has assisted the working poor of all races to the middle class. Social Security, GI Bill of Rights, Pell Grants, Public Education, Student Loans, Work Study programs, and mortgage assistance are just a few examples. We can emphasize our individual effort and fortitude but we are also part of a common history of collaborative and government effort.

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