Miriam Pawel: The study of history demands nuanced thinking





[Pawel is the author of the forthcoming book 'The Union of Their Dreams — Power, Hope and Struggle in Cesar Chavez's Farm Worker Movement.']

Cesar Chavez was not a saint. He was, at times, a stubborn authoritarian bully, a fanatical control freak, a wily fighter who manufactured enemies and scapegoats, a mystical vegetarian who healed with his hands, and a union president who wanted his members to value sacrifice above higher wages.

He was also a brilliant, inspirational leader who changed thousands of lives as he built the first successful union for farmworkers, a consummate strategist singularly committed to his vision of helping the poor — a vision that even those close to him sometimes misunderstood.

That one man embodies such complexity and contradictions should be a key lesson underlying any history curriculum: Students should learn to think in shades of gray, to see heroes as real people, and to reject the dogma of black and white.

That sort of nuanced thinking appears largely absent from the debate over whether Cesar Chavez should be taught in Texas schools. Two of the six reviewers appointed to assess Texas' social studies curriculum recently deemed Chavez an inappropriate role model whose contributions and stature have been overstated. Their critiques suggested he should be excised, not glorified. Their opponents pounced on the comments in an ongoing ideological and political dispute that clearly is far more sweeping than Chavez's proper place in the classroom.

But the debate over Chavez and how his story is taught exemplifies the dangers of oversimplification and the absence of critical thinking.

His supporters are at fault as well as his detractors. For years, they have mythologized Chavez and fiercely fended off efforts to portray him in less than purely heroic terms. The hagiography only detracts from his very real, remarkable accomplishments. In an era when Mexican Americans were regarded as good for nothing more than the most back-breaking labor, Chavez mobilized public support and forced agribusiness to recognize the rights of farmworkers. His movement brought farmworkers dignity and self-respect, as well as better wages and working conditions. In California, he pushed through what remains today the most pro-labor law in the country, the only one granting farmworkers the right to organize and petition for union elections.

Chavez's legacy can be seen in the work of a generation of activists and community organizers who joined the farmworker crusade during the 1960s and '70s, a movement that transformed their lives. They, in turn, have gone on to effect change across the country, most recently playing key roles in the Obama presidential campaign.

The decline of the union Chavez founded and the ultimate failure of the United Farm Workers to achieve lasting change in the fields of California — much less expand into a national union — is part of the Chavez legacy, too. Chavez himself played a role in that precipitous decline, and students of history should not follow his example and blame the failures solely on outside forces and scapegoats.

Chavez, an avid reader of history, preserved an extraordinary record of his own movement: For years, he ordered that all documents, tapes and pictures be sent to the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University in Detroit, the nation's preeminent labor archive. Chavez told people he wanted the history of his movement to be saved and studied — warts and all.

Those lessons should be taught in classrooms everywhere.


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John D. Beatty - 7/31/2009

...Just as self-styled "liberals" cannot stand their own failed programs and ideas studied or scrutinized.

But, history is often used as a cudgel in battles of the selector's choosing. It is often distorted into unrecognizable shapes by "nuanced" -"winger" ideologues until it bears no resemblance to the effects of events.

Sad, but true.


Michael Glen Wade - 7/31/2009

Ms. Pawel has not only focused on the value of history for education, but also on why so many self-styled "conservatives" dislike history. Properly conceived and rendered, it does not come out in simplistic terms that enable ideologues to have their dearest beliefs, and misconceptions prejudices, confirmed. This seems particularly true in Texas, which has yet to move beyond the Chuck Norris school of political thought(admittedly, Walker Talk does make great cover for unreconstructed segregationists, fundamentalists and shills for laissez faire mythology). Thanks to Ms. Pawel for the wise analysis. Makes me want to check the Austin Statesman for outraged, incoherent replies to her column!

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