I saw this word for the first time this week and my heart leaped upward! “At last!” I said.

Let’s leave my heart’s upward mobility aside for a little bit and look at what is happening here. I want to place it on the linguistic level and also on the historical scale.


The linguistic part is easy, even if it may be unfamiliar. There is a Greek verb izein, meaning, roughly, to make or do. Those core verbs are notoriously general in meaning. This verb is the source of the English suffix -ize, which means to make something into something it had not previously been. Think of uses like hypnotize and plagiarize. If you can mange it, do not think of “hide your eyes,” which Tom Lehrer introduced as a nice rhyme for plagiarize.

But as simple as it is, it is also fundamental. This suffix gives us a way to say that something was that and have been made into this. [1] The problem comes with people who will want to say that it was always this. It has not been “changed into this;” it has not been “ized.” In this case, I think they are wrong.

I hope that part is clear. That was the easy part.


The place that slavery has held in the teaching of history in the public schools has been a front of the culture wars for a very long time. When I was teaching history in an elementary school in the early ‘60s, I tried and failed to get a copy of an American History text made for use in southern schools. I had been told that the American story as it bore on race, on states’ rights, and on the Civil War, was told in very different ways than northern texts tell it. Almost certainly true, but I couldn’t get a copy.

A recent article in The Hedgehog by Johann Neem describes the current state of this front in the war. There has been an account of American history called the 1619 Project and a response, a contrasting perspective ginned up during the last days of the Trump administration, called the 1776 Report. To oversimplify each of these oversimplifications in turn, the first says that American history is based on the moral blot of slavery and nothing else; the second says that it is based on the aspirations of the early patriots—liberty, justice, and freedom for some—and nothing else.

Neem wants to begin to talk about an “adequate history.” I think that is an important step in the right direction.

Is there a way to tell an honest story about our past, one that squarely faces the history of race and exploitation without evasion? Most Americans think so. In contrast with the narrow understanding of American history offered by the post-Americans (the 1619 crowd) on one hand, and reactionary nationalists (1776) , on the other, it is the belief of most Americans that the United States is a flawed but worthy nation. [2]

That’s what Americans want, according to a lot of polls by a lot of organizations. But, speaking as a former history teacher here, this lopsided preference that “the truth be told” is not a willingness to be the people who tell it. It is a preference that someone else tell it.

At this point Neem follows William McNeill in making a distinction I think is too much and one I think will not be successful. Here is what Neem says:

The question is what kind of history do we want—and need—to have. The answer determines what we teach in our schools. In other words, we are arguing over what the historian William McNeill called “mythistory.”

“Facts,” McNeill wrote, do not “in and of themselves, give meaning or intelligibility to the record of the past…. To become a history, facts have to be put together into a pattern that is understandable and credible.”

going to save it. His point is about what facts are for. The real problem, according to Neem, “,,,arises in the organization of the facts. One cannot have history without facts, but one cannot put facts together without a conception of history.”

Yes. That is crucial. But I would like to see us get all that work done just using “narrative.” The narrative of our nation is what we want to teach and it is the sense of who we are that strengthens us or weakens us. The facts that support the narrative need to be true, of course, but there are lots of other true facts we are not using. When Sen. Moynihan famously said that no one was entitled to his own facts, he misspoke. He meant that you couldn’t just make them up. But he could not have meant that you couldn’t choose the ones that best supported your narrative. It is what he did, after all.

So I don’t want to follow McNeill into “mythistory.” I have just given one reason. Here is the other reason. No history is going to work if the nation’s people don’t want to tell it. It has to be appealing and it needs to be a narrative you can tell in public. It has to be a narrative that will pass muster with people who would prefer to substitute their own private narrative, but who support your telling because they know there is no other single narrative that will do the just that has to be done.

This is, in other words, “the narrative we have agreed to tell and to support in public.” It is a narrative we like to tell, even though we have a private subgroup narrative that we also tell in the appropriate circumstances.

That’s where we need to wind up. Rejecting the principled hocus pocus of the 1776 Project is a good start. Rejecting the racialization of American history at the heart of the 1619 Project is also a good start. But if there is not a story we want to tell, neither of those will be enough.

[1] Just so we don’t get distracted, the same transformation is going on in Latin using the verb facere, which shows up in English as -ify. Think of words like “sanctify” or “reify.”
[2] Johann N. Neem, “A Usable Past for a Post-American Nation”

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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