The Way We Never Were

One of my favorite books is The Way We Never Were by Stephanie Coontz. I don’t usually re-read books, but I have twice made an exception for this one, and I still dip into it now and then. Coontz is a faculty member at Evergreen State College, where she teaches history and family studies and directs research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families. 

In The Way We Never Were, Coontz uses history to deconstruct many of the myths we Americans tell ourselves. She takes on the belief, for example, that “we always stood on our own two feet” by enumerating the multiple ways in which government programs have long provided structures enabling individual effort. Addressing the fond belief that teenagers didn’t have sex outside of marriage before our degenerate times, she provides statistics on the number of “shotgun” marriages at the turn of the former century. And so forth. As an introduction to the book notes,

Leave It to Beaver was not a documentary, a man’s home has never been his castle, the ‘male breadwinner marriage’ is the least traditional family in history, and rape and sexual assault were far higher in the 1970s than they are today. 

The basic focus of the book was displayed in the subtitle: “American Families and the Nostalgia Trap.”

Today, nostalgia for the way we never were has become a primary dividing line between people who live in the real world (and who are, these days, disproportionately Democrats) and angry defenders of a society that never existed (these days, disproportionately Republicans.) That is especially the case with Southerners’ defense of the Lost Cause.

As a recent article from the Atlantic put it,

For so many Americans, “history isn’t the story of what happened; it is just the story they want to believe. It is not a public story we all share, but an intimate one, passed down like an heirloom, that shapes their sense of who they are. Confederate history is family history, history as a eulogy, in which loyalty takes precedence over truth.”

In “The War on Nostalgia,” published online today and on the cover of The Atlantic’s June issue, staff writer Clint Smith writes about the myth of the Lost Cause, which attempts to recast the Confederacy “as something predicated on family and heritage rather than what it was: a traitorous effort to extend the bondage of millions of Black people.” Traveling around the country, Smith visits sites that are grappling—or refusing to grapple—with America’s history of slavery, and considers what it would take for all Americans to reckon with the past.

I grew up in small-town America in the 1950s, and have subsequently been astonished by efforts to portray those years as somehow “golden.” Granted, if you were a Protestant White Male, things were pretty good–if you were female, or Black, or Catholic, or (as I was,  one of very few Jews in a very small town), not so much. In college, when I went (briefly) to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill still had separate restrooms and drinking fountains for Blacks and Whites, and I still remember the large billboard announcing to anyone who could read the planned construction of a “restricted” subdivision (i.e., no Jews or Blacks would be permitted to buy there.)

We can see the power of nostalgia in the current, intense resistance to efforts to teach accurate history. Educators and historians are only now coming to terms with the way American history has been white-washed (or perhaps I should spell that White-washed). I took a number of history classes, but I had never heard of the Tulsa massacre until two years ago. If the Trail of Tears was taught in any of those classes, I missed it.

Nostalgia can be a comforting way to remember many things: my babies’ first words, a stranger’s kindness at a particularly difficult time, a classroom epiphany, a love affair… There is nothing wrong with a nostalgia based upon actual events, even when we recall those events somewhat selectively– with  their “rough edges” removed, so to speak.

But nostalgia for a mythological American past–for the “way we never were”–is pernicious; it’s a refusal to learn from experience, and a way to defend what is frequently indefensible. 

It’s an indulgence we can’t afford.

 

24 thoughts on “The Way We Never Were

  1. It is no wonder to me that people who live in the Dominant White Culture (DWC) are resistant to learning about the parts of our history that have been suppressed. It is a hard thing to realize that, for those who are not in the DWC, America has been, and remains, a dystopian world, and the DWC are the creators of that dystopia.
    I was born and raised 40 miles north of Tulsa, and in all of my high school education there I never heard about the 1921 massacre. I also did not learn about the murders of members of the Osage Tribe in another town nearby (Pawhuska), or about the massacre in Dewey, Oklahoma, a town 4 miles north of my home town.( I did learn about the Trail of Tears because I had neighbors who were members of the Cherokee Nation)
    As the DWC begins to lose the position of privilege it (we) have held, there will be ongoing desperate attempts to maintain that position. As the sociologist C. Wright Mills postulated, people or groups in power will do everything they can to preserve that power, and we are seeing that clearly in the actions of legislatures in states. Holding on to power has become more important than doing what is needed to uphold the ideals of our democracy. They will not let go of it peacefully. The Insurrection of January 6 is proof of that.

  2. Very true, Sheila, “But nostalgia for a mythological American past–for the “way we never were”–is pernicious; it’s a refusal to learn from experience and a way to defend what is frequently indefensible.”

    Yes, I’ve read the “definitive history” of Muncie’s golden years and how well the local oligarchy treated slaves who made it North into Indiana. “They loved on them and adored them by giving them a job while other oligarchs would not.”

    Of course, all this definitive history was written by students attending the college. The oligarchs were founded and taught by teachers controlled by their board of directors and many layers of bosses in between. Oh, and they were funded by descendants of the oligarchs who control a shitpile of cash accumulated off the backs of underpaid workers.

    No wonder our history is misshapen. It has to make it through lots of filters before the final product is approved. 😉

    It is no different from our vanishing newspaper industry followed soon by cable news and probably university constructs that hold the keys to “knowledge” and exchange that “knowledge” for a high-priced piece of paper that students/parents gladly pay for because of the status brings to the ego.

    The collective ego of the USA is about to pop, and it will be painful. We’ve been lied to for a very long time, and the truth will be unpleasant to many.

  3. The existence of a “normal family” is a myth; husband, wife and 2.5 children, with a dog or cat in residence is the result of polling specific areas of the population and accepted as being a reality. Once I was old enough to “leave the nest” to venture a few blocks from home to visit new friends made in school; I saw a variety of family situations and my family fit into none of them.

    “But nostalgia for a mythological American past–for the “way we never were”–is pernicious; it’s a refusal to learn from experience, and a way to defend what is frequently indefensible.”

    This mindset appears to explain those “staunch Republicans” who refuse to see the changes in the world around them and cling tightly to believing they are the party of our highly venerated President Abraham Lincoln. But only as a concept; not to be the reality that those “others” deserve the same rights and benefits they demand for themselves. My family of whites, blacks, browns, racists, open-minded, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, religious, non-religious, hard working, living on the “dole”, honest in their dealings and others with arrest records, staunch Republicans, Democrats, no politics, are the “norm”. No wonder families are not what we once believed them to be and neighbors are no longer neighborly. Trump and his party have brought all of this into the open as never before, too often resulting in deadly violence; can we survive facing this and accept the realities of this 21st Century without President Obama’s “The Audacity of Hope” by coming together to resolve our many problems?

  4. 1950s: my school taught many of these incidents, which nearly all of you claim weren’t taught. The history teacher was also the basketball coach, a profession most of you disparage as ignorant. Assuming certain facts of history were not taught is just as pernicious as assuming they never happened. Consider: some of my classmates, who sat in the same history class as I, deny that we were taught any of these embarrassing incidents of American history; they either were not listening or refused to accept or could care less.

  5. You are perhaps asking too much of people. They mostly just want to be accepted, to belong. Most people don’t want to be outsiders. And then there is Upton Sinclair’s famous dictum about not forcing a man to believe something that his job depends on him not believing it. At best you can minimize these attitudes. But today’s Republican Party increasingly governs with these ideas. They have passed laws to secure the tyranny of the minority. And a lot of it is racial.
    As Charles Blow wrote this morning “who needs a new bridge if you don’t have the right to vote”. Voting rights are the most important issue facing this country at this moment. If you want a better world, you have to be able to vote for it.

  6. Thank you for an important post. I would submit that the “Empire of Cotton,” Sven Beckert, is an adjunct to these ideas. “The Way We Never Were” is a gift: Thank You.

  7. I think it’s interesting to read the comments on this blog and coming from the main propaganda spreaders in “leadership” positions within government and industry, is this sense that our “democracy is in crisis” and then point to the need for a free press and access to voting.

    A 2014 Princeton Study concluded what Albert Einstein said in 1949, “Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University stated that “majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts.”

    Therefore, we’re not even representative democracy, but an oligarchy.

    We’re long past losing democracy since we now rank 25th globally. Our voting has meant nothing for a very long time. Our so-called “free press” now ranks 44th globally.

    Just because we believe we have press freedom and democracy doesn’t make it so. Who are the deluded ones?

  8. It all goes back to conscience! That thing that always nags in the back of your mind! The thing that tells you you’re wrong when you hate! Of course you don’t have to listen to your conscience, and you can go with the flow of the times! I think it was mentioned before, history is cyclical! I mean, it was pointed out that as much as individuals claim to hate or claimed to hate homosexuality, it was revered in other cultures in other times of history. And then it goes the opposite direction again. And then it resurges and then it goes away again. Cyclical Carnage!

    People will always use self delusion to quiet their conscience no matter what their previous generations have done. Whether they persecuted homosexuals or LGBTQ folks. Whether they were involved in subjugating indigenous peoples, whether they were involved in slavery, or hunting down escaped slaves, or selling people as commodities! Or falsely claiming and using religious leaders to quiet their conscience concerning all the rotten things that they’re responsible for in history!

    Yep, conscience is a terrible thing, and, it will always tell you the truth! That’s why people live in a past that never really existed, it allows them to live with that conscience, no matter how deluded and willfully ignorant their past really is!

  9. Larry Kaiser; maybe your school did teach the history of the Tulsa killing and burning and other historical events, that does not mean every school in this country taught those issues. Where did you attend school? Living in Indiana as does Sheila but in the capitol city, those issues were not taught in American History. We also had required Government classes but not Civics; only learning the structure and responsibilities of government and not the importance of our rights and responsibilities to government as citizens. Maybe your coach was a good teacher; my high school years in the early – mid-1950s the coaches taught classes such as Driving and Health Care which were electives only earned 1/2 a credit.

    When we have such repeatedly elected officials as Louie Gohmert in Texas who now wants to know if we can change the orbit of the moon and earth to aid climate change there should be no surprise that Texas planned to rewrite American History to prove slavery was beneficial to blacks. Their concept was that they were promised jobs, homes, food and clothing and willingly climbed onto those slave ships. To quote Gomer Pyle; “Surprise, surprise, surprise!”

    If you have gone no further than what you were taught in the 1950s, and I know many who ceased learned and growing when they left high school, they comprise much of the Republican party who fail to realize today’s reality is “The Way We Never Were”…and will never be. I have learned more since leaving school by reading, keeping up with news and researching questionable areas than I ever learned in school. The fact that draining the public education tax funds resulted in today Indiana holding the record for the highest number of voucher students in private, primarily religious schools, in the nation while being near the bottom of the national list of quality education is easily explained. Public schools are failing due to lack of funds and quality teachers and administrators. Were the educators in this state aware of Tulsa, et al, to be able to pass on those history lessons to students?

  10. Peggy – thanks for the breath of fresh air in the venting. Without personal action, you are signaling your acquiescence to all you abhor/fear.

  11. My study of cultural anthropology leads me to believe that about half of who each one of us is is determined by what we were born with and into and the other half is what we experienced as a result. That gives each of us a very narrow view of reality and other perspectives unless we very consciously strive to think outside of our skin and notice what other people experience.

    It is said by someone that we don’t know one culture until we know two. In other words, cultures can be compared with other cultures but are pretty transparent otherwise.

    When I went to the deep south in 1960, which Virginia was then, to go to school, I felt that I had been dropped onto a different planet. Many of my friends probably assumed that I had come from a different planet.

    As the world has progressed since it has become truly become a global melting pot of cultures. Other cultures have moved from across the seas to across the street. While I believe that there will become a great good from that there are generations of trauma in it for everyone until the benefit comes about.

    “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.”

  12. Todd,

    Please visit my website (www.vernturner.com) and acquire the Sonya Keller trilogy. The second in the series, “Demon Slayer” takes place in and around Muncie. I researched as best I could, so I have to say it’s pure fiction. The first book, “The Ten Arms of Durga” takes place in the far NW corner of Indiana. You’ll love the final outcome in “The Medalist”. It could happen – even in Indiana. LOL.

    Enjoy.

  13. My history back in my Baby Boomer years touched on slavery and the removal of Native Americans from their ancestral lands. We also learned about the rise of the Unions, Woman’s Suffrage.

    We did not learn about the horrific details of slavery, Jim Crow, the genocide against Native Americans and the use by the oligarchy of the state security apparatus (police, courts, National Guard and assorted hired thugs to destroy the union movements and the suppression of the Women’s Suffrage Movement.

    We also did not learn about American Imperialism’s aggressive foreign policy in Latin America and in China, with the aid of our military.

    I quote Union General Carl Schurz:

    “Ideals are like stars; you will not succeed in touching them with your hands, but like the sea fearing man on the desert of waters, you choose them as your guides, and following them, you reach your destiny”

    “The Senator from Wisconsin cannot frighten me by exclaiming, “My country, right or wrong.” In one sense I say so too. My country; and my country is the great American Republic. My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”

    “If you want to be free, there is but one way; it is to guarantee an equally full measure of liberty to all your neighbors. There is no other.”

    I suppose the Reactionary Right Wing is in denial about the history, is they do not want to feel any guilt for the past. They would prefer to live in the Dick and Jane history of America.

  14. I bought and read Koontz’s effort eons ago. It has not grown hoary with age, and in this connection I note that our predecessors in our immigrant-laden society brought various lookalikes from various countries which needed melding into the American story, so like those countries with their stories we dreamed up our story, one Koontz has so deftly unmasked.

    We are not alone. Thus, for instance, the Irish revere St. Patrick, but I once heard a Unitarian preacher note that Patrick, if he existed, was not Irish, was not a saint, his name was not Patrick, he did not chase the snakes out of Ireland because there weren’t any, and was not even a Catholic. This preacher was a Koontz in action but would find his observation a hard sell in Dublin.

    I did all my schooling in Indiana, from first grade through a degree in economics and law school and I never heard of the Tulsa massacre until only a few years ago. Why? I heard plenty about Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and other bad guys, including the northern historians’ views of the bad rebels to our south, but nothing about the bad white guys in Tulsa. Could it be that bad white guys and textbook publishers are in charge of doling out America’s past to suit their own bottom lines and prejudices irrespective of reality? Nah! Perish the thought! Or embrace it.

    So what else is there to know that we don’t know or perhaps don’t even want to know, like, for instance, that Lincoln the Railsplitter as a candidate was instead a rich lawyer from Illinois who represented railroads and chased widows and Indians off their lands for railroad right of way from sea to shining sea? Don’t get me started; I’m no Koontz.

    So who’s in charge of doling out history – all of it? I nominate Koontz.

  15. The key for the ‘deplorable nostalgic’ is to ignore information and evidence that undermines or debunks their views about history. They will fight against education related to subjects that seek to enlighten. The backlash to the teaching of Critical Race Theory is a perfect example.

    The very recent attacks on Ilhan Omar are another example. As a non-American, it feels to me like you guys have a significant tendency to try to ignore anything that runs counter to the way you _wish_ your country was. Ilhan did not say anything incorrect, or controversial (outside of America, at least).

    Aside: when Trump was asked by O’Reilly about Putin’s behaviour and commented that the USA had done terrible things, no one made a peep. (Was it surprise that Trump said something true??) But the question is: why not? I guess the simple answer is: politics. So frustrating! It’s so sad that characteristics like honesty and objectivity are detrimental for those playing politics.

  16. Larry Kaiser –

    Like your teacher, my high school U.S. history teacher was also our varsity basketball coach.

    Here is a synopsis of every day in my fall semester history class: Mr. Miller (the teacher/basketball coach) took roll call and then immediately lead the boys that were on the basketball team to the gym for basketball practice. The rest of us were to stay in the classroom and could do whatever we wanted to do. Those of us who cared about our grades typically did homework for other classes. Most of the students just had fun.

    Every couple of weeks Mr. Miller gave us a ten question quiz and provided the answers to us before handing out the quiz. As expected, we all passed the quizzes with flying colors. When it came time for tests he also provided the answers. He did give us reading assignments, but why bother if you didn’t really need to study in order to pass the class?

    The Administration knew this took place and should have put a stop to it, but a winning basketball team was more important. As you can imagine I have had to learn about U.S. history on my own over the years. I do recall being told that Native Americans (Indians) were savages and horrible people that murdered our soldiers. Before high school graduation my knowledge about any U.S. history basically came from our 8th grade World history class that was taught by another teacher. I have learned quite a lot over the years, but cannot even begin to fathom how much more there is that I don’t know.

    The information that I have been able to learn over decades makes me angry about the white-washing of our history and the cover up of our forefathers’ savagery.

  17. Defending mythology:
    Last Thursday, in Florida– https://www.wokv.com/news/florida/state-board-education-votes-prevent-critical-race-theory-being-taught-florida-schools/QK2YA26M35DCZAU6NM33EGAYTM/ And THIS is the 21st century!
    Ms. Coontz’ book is now on my booklist, thanks.
    “Desirability Bias” is the term psychologists use to describe thievish to hold onto conclusions that do not fit with reality, according to Adam Grant, in “Think Again, The Power Of Knowing What You Don’t Know.”
    Larry, I grew up in NYC, grad H.S. in ’60, grad college in ’65, never having heard of the Tulsa massacre, the Rosewood, Fl. massacre, the Trail of Tears, and much, much, more. I can only applaud your teacher/school.
    A people’s History of the United States,” by Howard Zinn has some fascinating info. on the, apparently, real history of this blighted country. I expect that many, if not all visitors here have at least heard of it, if not read it.
    The Whitewashed history of the country brings to mind that rancid comment by Bill Barr, about how “History is written by the victors.” If Barr could read the current history, as depicted 100 years from now, I do not think he would be happy with his portrayal in it.

  18. The Indiana history I was taught in 1964 and the American history I was taught in 1969 were definitely white washed. In little Cottage Grove and Liberty Indiana, I don’t recall seeing a single black person. There were no black kids in my elementary school. Even at Univ of Indianapolis(it was In Central Univ when I went) from 1970-74 there were no black history or womens’ history classes.

    Looking back on my early childhood, I realize I was very sheltered. And in school as a kid, I did not learn much about the genocide of Native Americans, only “Manifest Destiny.”

    Though I have fond memories of time with my grandparents and the simple life of my early childhood, I realize I had no female role models in medicine, government, business, or law and no gay ones either. We were taught about the savagery of Native Americans. We were taught about slavery but my father and grandparents were racist. Certainly no one taught me about gay people until I reached high school. Then those of us in the LBGTQ community were stigmatized, perverted, criminal queers. Abortion was still a crime.

    Leave it to Beaver and Donna Reed are white American myths. I knew that as a kid because I had an alcoholic father. Now I get to see the real struggles of different sorts of families, learn about how we violated truces with Native Americans, the violence against Native Americans and women, and LGBTQIA people.

    America is not a country of saints. It is a country of humans who have not learned to stop fearing the “other”. Our history is full of villains and heroes, even martyrs.

    Denial is not a river in Egypt. People use it to protect themselves from the truth which can hurt like hell and really tick a person off. The GOP is in denial about American history. They want to paint us as simply heroic when, in fact, we are a mixed bag. We have the promise of showing the world how to create a democracy with a diverse citizenry. We can fulfill the promise only if we stop fearing the other, only if like children we remain open and curious and willing to learn from one another.

    How do we fix it? I support reparations for Native Americans and African Americans. (I am happy the Keystone pipe line has finally bitten the dust. ) Dig Deep is producing clean water for Native Americans in New Mexico and Arizona. Native Americans need to be allowed to arrest people who are not Native Americans when they commit a crime on their land. No wonder so many Native American women’s murderers have not been brought to justice. We need to change our public safety forces to include mental health and addiction professionals. We need to repair the inequity in wealth and health care. Of course, the devil for these improvements is in the details. And that would require some intelligent, competent professionals to write books.

  19. I don’t remember much about high school history, except that Mr. Weaver had a terrible toupee and purportedly once said “get out of my hair or I’ll take if off and shake you out” and he did make jokes about the Whigs.

    Elementary school I remember better. We had a totally racist text book (later removed after pressure by the NAACP and others) and I don’t think a single person in the class believed it.

    Unpleasant history is hard to swallow. I was in my thirties when my uncle suggested that his father (my grandfather) may have had an affair. I never met my grandfather, but it didn’t fit with the ideal view of my grandparents (both of whom were quite attractive in their youth) as a loving couple, but I accept the possibility and still wish I had known him.

    Maybe that isn’t as bad as coming to terms with the fact that your ancestors were racist slave holders, but it’s been generations.

  20. Larry Kaiser and I went to the same very small, rural Hoosier school with Grades K-12 all in the same building. It was an outstanding school whose students and programs won awards in a variety of disciplines. His history teacher had left for a larger school when I got to high school. My history teacher was excellent and progressive who amplified the textbooks. We discussed Martin Luther King Jr. and some of the civil rights movement, but I never heard of the Trail of Tears or the Tulsa massacre in either high school or college where history was my minor. We were taught that we fought, took possession of their land, and displaced Native Americans to reservations, but that was the extent of my knowledge of their history.

    A friend remarked this week that we’ll never begin to overcome racism if we don’t acknowledge its existence and the harm it has done. She noted that the Germans have embraced and teach the story of Hitler and his atrocities so that it won’t happen again. We must do the same with the atrocities of racism if we hope to overcome it. Unfortunately, a certain vocal and even violent segment of the population doesn’t WANT to learn of it, let alone overcome it.

  21. I’m suggesting that for most of you, when the assigned reading and/or lectures about massacres and displacements in American history, were covered in class, you weren’t listening or didn’t read the assignment… just as I skipped reading segments in our textbook about Bills proposed in Congress… and just as I now forget the names of generals of the revolution and which side they were on.

  22. My high school history teacher, coach Rogers, grew up on an Indian Reservation and was thus “woke”, and he was a great story teller. As a teen, being very small, he got employment as a jockey in illegal horse races staged by illegal betting syndicates. But even he couldn’t cover all that was in the textbook. Consider that the usual textbook was 400 pages long and when open to any two pages, those pages likely contained three or more topics… and the semester gave less than 100 hours to cover 1000 items of history, not to mention cover both (or all) sides of an issue. I, too, taught public school, and I can testify that my “students” were just like you—they recall about 3% of what I taught and maybe 5% that the subject even came up. So, don’t presume things were not taught when the only evidence is your memory.

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