If American history were taught right, with the foibles and failures of its great men and women disclosed upfront instead of hidden behind the fine print of hagiography, there's no way it wouldn't be every citizen's favorite subject.
But the sad fact is that it is rare, even in schools that aren't failing, to find teachers who are encouraged to teach American history with the interdisciplinary integrity it deserves. How is it possible to do credit to our nation's convoluted history by teaching it in hermetically sealed units, as if it were a disciplined march from the Mayflower to the smoldering ruins of 9/11?
American history taught right would leave us weak-kneed from exposure to the audacity of the American experiment, its inherent contradictions, its triumphs and its failures. American history is a many-tentacled, undisciplined and gloriously rambunctious mess, with a large and diverse cast of scoundrels, patriots, fanatics, flawed heroes and sanctimonious villains.
There are times when those whose names recur the most in our history books move back and forth between otherwise distinct moral categories like hero and villain with the felicity of ghosts.
The Post-Gazette this week published a two-part series on the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln's issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, a document that freed the slaves in the territories not controlled by the Union.
On Monday, Executive Editor David Shribman vividly described Lincoln's agony as he sought to do the right thing more than a century after the Founding Fathers kicked that can down the road. It would be up to Lincoln to settle -- through a bloody civil war -- whether remaining a slave republic was compatible with our nation's highest ideals.
What comes across most in the description of Lincoln's mindset on that fateful New Year's Eve in 1862 was that issuing the proclamation that freed the slaves was not a foregone conclusion. His abolitionist allies had no idea whether he would actually do it, though they hoped for the best.
Meanwhile, the president we now call the Great Emancipator struggled with what it meant to take a step -- freeing the slaves -- that the Founding Fathers debated and ultimately rejected as impractical and too provocative. Lincoln decided it was in the interest of the nation to forge a new path, even if it would scandalize the Constitutional "originalists" of his day.
We're fortunate that Lincoln did not see the reluctance of the nation's founders as somehow sacrosanct when it came to slavery. As an attentive student of American history, Lincoln understood that our past would always be in dynamic tension with our present and our future. It was his duty -- and ours -- to interrogate American history and to reject the flawed logic and mixed motives while striving for a more just and equitable future.
Given the constantly evolving stakes of our history, why do most students hate history even more than math? There's not a boring or inconsequential moment in the politics of Lincoln's brave act. Teaching it chronologically without bringing in every academic discipline including literature, economics and slave narratives is criminal, though. It is impossible for a kid with a brain not to be riveted by any dramatic moment in American history if it is taught correctly.
Earlier this year, historian Henry Wiencek followed up "An Imperfect God," his indispensable exploration of George Washington's tragic accommodation with slavery, with "Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves."
Reading Mr. Wiencek's well-written and thoroughly sourced books, we learn that the two most admired architects of American liberty violated their own principles rather than suffer the financial loss that moral consistency would have cost them by freeing their slaves.
For those who know what a burning prairie fire American history tends to be, there's nothing particularly new in Mr. Wiencek's latest book, but not a lot of Americans are aware of it. What the eminent historian does for the average reader is put both the glory and the tragedy of Jefferson the slave owner into as unsentimental a context as possible. Jefferson is not allowed to sit on a pedestal. Because he's a human being, we don't have an incentive to yawn.
We've always suspected that the Founding Fathers acted with mixed motives when it came to slavery. After all, they were flawed people with often irreconcilable passions and contradictory impulses, just like us. Some of them were determined to make as much money as possible at the expense of the bodies and souls of others.
Let's keep the dynamic nature of American history in mind as we once again debate the wisdom and intent of the Second Amendment. The U.S. Constitution isn't static. American history isn't even past.