by Kevin Curry-Knight
Recently, a friend of mine – a Nietzsche scholar – posted on social media that he wished all of those engaged in arguments over antiracism in history education would read Nietzsche’s essay “On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life.” The friend didn’t elaborate, but I respect his judgment and have been following the rancor around attempts to make history education more anti-racist, whether we should tell US history with more eye toward the centrality of slavery and racial apartheid, or keep things as they are. I followed my friend’s advice, and I’m glad I did.
The overriding point in Nietzsche’s essay – and what I later confirmed was the point of my friend’s post – was that we should always keep in mind that history is a human project engaged in for thoroughly human reasons. Says Nietzsche:
Our need for history is quite different from that of the spoiled idler in the garden of knowledge, even if he in his refinement looks down on our rude and graceless requirements and needs. That is, we require history for life and action, not for the smug avoiding of life and action, or even to whitewash a selfish life and cowardly, bad acts. Only so far as history serves life will we serve it. 
What bugs me, as well as my Facebook friend, is that so much debate on how we should teach history is conducted by sides who are sure that they’re disagreeing only about what the facts of the matter are. We need to teach the way the past really happened, our side does that, and while we’re interested solely in objectivity, the other side distorts history in service of a partisan agenda. 
The problem with that is that as Nietzsche (and historiographers like Hayden White) are here to remind us, history is a narrative about the past told by and for people. People – the tellers and receivers – have interests. These historical narratives go – and must go – beyond recounting of facts: which facts are important and which are irrelevant? How do the facts fit together? What purpose do I have for even telling this, rather than another, story? How should I stage my telling? As such, telling history must always be as much a narrative and literary project as a scientific one.
To drive the point home before getting back to Nietzsche, when a doctor asks your medical history, or an adoptee their family history, or we teach US history to school children, the purposes of the parties are vital. The type of doctor you are seeing and what you are seeing her about will help inform whether you tell her your dental history, and will also inform how the doctor makes sense of the history you tell her (and whether she wanted you to include your dental history). If the adoptive parents know that the child’s father was a mass murderer, it may give them pause about whether or how to tell the child their family story, and their telling will surely affect how the child thinks of himself.
Whether and how much to talk about racial injustice as part of the US project? The purposes of the history tellers and the audience is similarity relevant. What does the school or district want history to do? Inspire reverential patriotism? Instill in students a sense of social justice? Cause students to give up on the American project altogether? Inspire them to dream for something new?
Nietzsche discusses three ways we can read history and apply it to life. First, we can read history monumentally. By this approach, history can either inspire those living in the present to be thankful for inheriting such a glorious past, or something like it’s opposite, where monumental history becomes “the disguise in which their hatred of the mighty and the great of their time parades as satisfied admiration of the mighty and the great of past ages.” Depending on how it is done, monumental history can inspire a love for the present or a scorn for its fallenness.
Antiquarian history, says Nietzsche, venerates the antique because it is antique. It treats “everything old and past which has not totally been lost sight of… as equally venerable, while whatever does not approach the old with veneration, that is, the new and growing, will be rejected and treated with hostility.” In some sense, antiquarianism is a conservatism solely for the sake of conservatism.
Lastly, there is the critical approach to history; here is where things get interesting. The critical historian:
must have the strength, and use it from time to time, to shatter and dissolve something to enable him to live: this he achieves by dragging it to the bar of judgment, interrogating it meticulously and finally condemning it; every past, however, is worth condemning—for that is how matters happen to stand with human affairs: human violence and weakness have always contributed strongly to shaping them. It is not justice which here sits in judgment; even less is it mercy which here pronounces judgment: but life alone, that dark, driving, insatiably self-desiring power. Its verdict is always unmerciful, always unjust, because it has never flowed from a pure fountain of knowledge; but in most cases the verdict would be the same were justice itself to proclaim.
To shatter and dissolve something to enable him to live? That surely fits the critical approach to history, the one we can easily recognize in, say, the 1619 Project. Put more emphasis on the centrality of slavery and racial apartheid in history books and school curriculum, they say; and while that does mean shattering some comfortable myths we’ve been telling about history, it is in order that we might live to transcend that racially unjust inheritance. Is that project worthy? It depends on whether you think that retrieving the past, continuing the present, or creating some different future is where you want things to go.
But Nietzsche reminds us that all history, not just the critical historian’s, involves forgetting. “All acting requires forgetting, as not only light but also darkness is required for life by all organisms. A man who wanted to feel everything historically would resemble someone forced to refrain from sleeping, or an animal expected to live only from ruminating and ever repeated ruminating.” Does the antiquarian revere every historical artifact simply because it is one? He can’t, as there is only enough time in the day. Surely, he also has a reason for revering historical artifacts, and figuring out those reasons will tell you what historical artifacts will be less appreciated than others.
Maybe harder to see is how the monumental historian forgets. To make something into a monument, you must forget; namely, all the things that could disqualify that thing from your reverence. If the 1619 Project wants us to forget that, as economist Glenn Loury often points out, black people in the United States are the richest people of African descent ever to live on the earth (from fear that this will make it easy to be complacent about racism injustice), its critics forget in the opposite direction. They believe that the best hope for good citizenship is proper reverence for the United States and what it has done. To do that, we must also forget in order to live. To live as a reverential patriot requires forgetting – at least not holding in your mind too long or too seriously – the idea that your land of the free was, to others, a land of systematic and ruthless bondage, a land where they were raped, beaten, lynched, and whose continued bondage was an inspired cause for half of the nation.
Clint Smith has a good illustration of how both sides are “guilty” (as if it is possible not to be) of convenient forgetting in his book How the Word is Passed. Here, he is talking to Niya Bates, a historian working with Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate to make its historical narratives about the founding father as accurate and rich as possible. Smith and Bates discuss those who believe the estate focuses too much on Jefferson’s deep ties to slavery. Says Bates:
Yes, he contributed great things. Yes, he gave us the Declaration of Independence, and the university where I got my degree, but he also owned people. He owned ancestors of people I know. That’s reality. I think in order to really understand him, and to fully understand him, you have to grapple with slavery. You have to grapple with [physical] violence [Smith’s brackets, not mine] and psychological violence. We would not be doing justice if we did not tell those stories.
The question, in some sense, is “Which Jefferson are we wanting to understand? What is our purpose for understanding him?” Proponents of critical histories like the 1619 Project might say that to understand America, we need not only to understand but appreciate how bound up with that project race-based slavery was, and this is the best way to understand how we should relate to today’s America. Thus, we need to understand that Jefferson. The monumental approach of, say, the 1776 Unites Project might reply that while we should acknowledge that Jefferson, he is peripheral to the understanding of Jefferson that most properly serves the history we need to convey: the history of Jefferson as author of the Declaration of Independence, founder of the University of Virginia, and President of the United States.
To Nietzsche’s point, we cannot just teach all the facts about Jefferson. We must always be selective about which facts to teach, which of those to emphasize relative to others, and which to forget entirely. (We can teach that slavery happened, but deciding how central or inextricable it is to the American project, or what relevance it has to today’s racial disparities involves, but goes beyond, deciphering what the facts are.)
Critics of the 1619 Project aren’t advocating that we forget slavery and racial apartheid when teaching about American history. And no proponents of the 1619 Project advocate that we forget to teach about the Declaration of Independence, that the Union won the Civil War, and how far America has come on the issue of race. But each side wants to downplay certain true aspects of American history that do not fit the impression they want their telling to give. Each wants to emphasize other equally true aspects that helps them make their point. Human purposes (and forgetting in their service) is always and irreducibly a part of that project.
It is also worth noting that as a student of the history of education, I can assure you that historiography and history-curriculum-building has always been this sort of battleground. From battles over whether schools should, in Benjamin Rush’s phrasing “convert men into republican machines,” to battles over how “Anglican” our narratives of American history should be, or how to teach both Northerners and Southerners about the Civil War, we always select and forget as a part of how we tell history in schools. Heated debates about history and patriotism in schools simpler to current ones captivated the chattering classes as recently as the 1990’s. History is indubitably a political project, and mandating that kids learn about it in schools that teach to government standards just adds political grease to that fire. We’ve been here before; well be here again.
Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah defines a nation as “a group of people who think of themselves as sharing ancestry and also care about the fact that they have that supposed ancestry in common.” History, especially in the schools of the nation, will surely impact how “we” think about our nation (and the quotes are meant to indicate my skepticism that the citizenry of nation states are anything short of molded into a homogeneous “we”). Should we, as the 1619 Project risks doing, acknowledge that we really don’t have such a shared common national experience? If we do that, will it serve to inspire the redress of wrongs that might make possible such a shared national experience? Or will it, as critics fear, spell the splintering and possible destruction of a nation that was great until we told the citizens it wasn’t?
My friend’s social media challenge leads me to one final place: time to reread Nikole Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay to the 1619 Project. What is she trying to remember, and what is she trying to forget? No doubt she is the very image of Nietzsche’s critical historian, but what is she willing to shatter and dissolve in order to live? Live how? Here’s what I find.
After telling a story about her childhood, and her perplexity at why her father would fly an American flag as a black man, she tells story after story of American white supremacy rearing its head, how it repeatedly knocked black people down but never fully counted them out. In stark contrast to what critics say about the 1619 Project’s necessary contempt for America, she finishes by recounting how these stories have helped her better appreciate her Americanness. “We were told once, by virtue of our bondage, that we could never be American. But it was by virtue of our bondage that we became the most American of all” (26). Shattering in order to live.
In light of Hannah-Jones’s statement, I’ll give Nietzsche the last word:
Let us call them the historical men. Looking into the past urges them toward the future, incites them to take courage and continue to engage in life, and kindles the hope that things will yet turn out well and that happiness is to be found behind the mountain toward which they are striding. These historical men believe that ever more light is shed on the meaning of existence in the course of its process, and they look back to consider that process only to understand the present better and learn to desire the future more vehemently.
 All quotations from Nietzsche’s essay are from: Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the advantage and disadvantage of history for life. Hackett Publishing, 1980.
 In this case, there is certainly some dispute about what the facts really are. And I’ve been persuaded by some of the criticisms of the 1619 Project to believe that its critics are right that it gets certain facts – some large, some small – wrong. But even so, there are many points in the Project that are not factually in dispute, and much of the public rhetoric – even when it is framed as a dispute over the facts – ends up being about how to interpret those facts into the proper narrative that our history books should tell. That the debate isn’t solely about facts makes it hard to see why what one thinks about the project lines up too neatly with political affiliation.