There are a few versions of history you can tell your kids. You can tell them the propaganda version—the fables, the self-serving myths, the lies that dictators or the jingoists like to traffic in. You can tell them the dark truth version, the almost-nihilist “People’s History” version that is resurgent today—that everything is bad, was done with evil intention, that all of history is a cover for malevolence and that progress is impossible.
Or you can tell them the third version: The one that does not deny history or hope. The one that looks to see the good in people without pretending the bad didn’t happen.
Was America founded on white supremacy, or was it a brave leap forward in the pursuit of individual liberty that sowed the seeds for the destruction of white supremacy? Was the Civil War two racist sides battling each other, or was it a noble struggle of good people who came to see clearly the great evil of slavery? And after the war, did progress stall out? Or did some people try very hard to do what was right, only to be stopped by profound resistance from anti-democratic forces—forces that could have been overcome if people had tried a little harder? And for America and the Civil War, you can plug in any nation and its historical events—Germany and the World Wars, Britain and colonialism, the Eastern Bloc and communism.
We can tell our kids a version of history that makes them throw up their hands. Or we can tell them a version that makes them roll up their sleeves. What do we want? Do we want them to feel guilty for things their distant ancestors did, or inspired by their more recent ancestors who strove to do better? Do we want them to be part of the solution, or part of the wailing about the problem?
It’s your call and it starts with the story you tell them.