Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Misreading History

I don’t own a television, but I do watch the box when I find myself in a hotel room. Just small doses of it remind me why we turned ours off some 30 years ago.

Take, for example, the incessant worship of Steve Jobs. Sorry to rain on the parade, but you cannot turn on the television without yet another story about the Apple leader. Just this morning it was an interview on "Good Morning America" with his biographer.

Yes, I know he single-handedly invented personal computing--sort of like how some would have us believe that Henry Ford invented the automobile and built all of them himself. And where would we be without phones so smart we can use them while driving down busy highways or spoil a dinner out with friends while we check the latest sports scores or new hot music video?

But besides television’s penchant for not telling the entire story or reducing it to the simplest line, it also chooses what history really matters--and usually makes the wrong choice.

Case in point: while the commentators were fawning over Jobs, they mostly missed the passing of another great American on the same day -- Fred Shuttlesworth.

If you don’t know who Fred Shuttlesworth is it is probably not your fault. You may not know that in 1963 he lead the folks standing up to the dogs and fire hoses in taking on Sherriff Bull Conner in Birmingham, Ala. You may not know that he prodded the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. into taking a stand in that town that would begin to turn the tide in the civil rights movement. And you may not know that his church was bombed three times, he was arrested 30 times, and more than once was nearly beaten to death as he stood for the rights of Americans to do simple things like vote, drink from a water fountain, or go to the beach. (Start your primer on Shuttlesworth here.)

Of course our schools--mine included--share the blame for allowing Shuttlesworth to disappear from history while making Jobs and others our new heroes. But this also points out how hard it is for our schools to combat the incessant drumbeat of the media. (Try this, Google Steve Jobs’ death and you get 260,000,000 hits, Shuttlesworth gets a 1000th of that.)

When I was in college I used to joke that I wanted to belong to a "countercultural institution." Being a public school educator fits that bill.

The Jobs/Shuttlesworth comparison points out how mainstream culture goes for the easy story, the story with a simple line. Iphone is an easy sell. The civil rights movement? Way more difficult. We also know the media loves to go with the "one great man" approach. The civil rights movement cannot be reduced to just one person or one moment.

Finally, let us not forget that mainstream culture, as defined by the media, is product- and consumer-driven. The Jobs story is one that resonates right through the computer on which I am typing. You can’t sell civil rights or make a profit on it, so does it really matter?

What Fred Shuttlesworth did to change the lives of millions of Americans was way more important than creating the ability to see your favorite team’s touchdown on your mobile device. Unfortunately, that’s not the message our kids get from the television.

It is up to our schools to change that message and to counter the drumbeat of prevailing culture.

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