I'm always surprised by the number of students who are shocked to find that Paul Revere was not the only one making a "midnight ride" and that the British troops had already arrived. His capture, interrogation, brutal treatment and freedom (under suspicious circumstances) aren't mentioned in the children's books and the textbooks of our youth.
In fact, the obsession with the individual hero is so profoundly engrained in our cultural psyche that anything otherwise feels offensive. My students want to believe that history is a series of saviors, each one profoundly influence on his or her own, boldly taking on structures and systems alone. They want John Wayne heroes. They want want a two lone survivors of a the Hunger Games taking on the Capitol.
History doesn't work like this.
My students are shocked to find that Martin Luther King Jr. borrowed heavily from an oral tradition and a poetic precedent that included Langston Hughes. They are surprised to learn that Dolores Huerta was as influential as Cesar Chavez at mobilizing Latino farmworkers. They are shocked to learn that Washington wasn't truly the "founder of our nation," that Jefferson borrowed so much of Mason's text that it might be viewed in modern times as plagiarism and that Rosa Parks was not a tired woman wanting a front-row seat, but one of many African-Americans who stood up in collective defiance against an unjust system. They are surprised to learn that Edison wasn't the great inventor so much as a power-hungry CEO who mobilized an army of engineers to produce patents that would make him a fortune.
Is it any wonder that students look at history and say, "It's not for me?" It's not that students don't care. They just don't see themselves as the winners in a lottery-ticker exchange of influential people.
How much different would the history textbooks read if they were presented closer to reality: as larger social movements with unnamed hero who organized, spoke up collectively and fought boldly as a group? What would it look like to move past the myth of "great" men and women and into the reality larger, collective voices standing up for change?
It might seem disappointing to some that history wasn't molded by a few individuals who made huge contributions. However, democracy becomes truly accessible when we look at reality honestly and realize that there is power in massive social change, in huge reforms with people who alone feel so isolated but collectively stand up for justice.
History becomes powerful, authentic and approachable when we realize the hidden narrative that large, organized groups can produce amazing social change when they act both collectively and individually.
photo credit: RenoTahoe via photo pin cc