Gongol.com Archives: January 2022

Brian Gongol

January 17, 2022

News One quote isn't enough

While he was alive, the FBI subjected Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to repeated violations of his rights and fundamentally violated his personal liberty. The bureau tapped his phones, surveilled him, and treated him like an enemy. Agents even tried using subterfuge to try to persuade him to kill himself. The treatment was degrading and fundamentally un-American. ■ Thus it comes as no surprise that the FBI's social-media treatment of the holiday in his name and honor has been roundly criticized for ignoring that shameful past. Nobody working on the FBI's social-media team in 2022 was party to the abuses of six decades ago, of course. Yet the impulse to find a quote attributable to King and to share it approvingly on social media is a peculiar one, especially for an institution with such an ignominious role in the subject's life, and it is illustrative of a bad habit exacerbated by a deeply embedded flaw in the way Americans learn history. ■ The bad habit comes from the instinct to find a quote that seems agreeable and to wave it around as a signal of solidarity with something larger. The FBI borrowed "Everybody can be great because anybody can serve" to latch on to the King holiday. The fundamental problem with this approach is that a person pulling a line from Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, Bartleby, Wikiquote, or (as often as not in the modern era) Pinterest is in danger of cherry-picking a few words out of context and looking foolish as a result. ■ Many quotes do stand on their own. But it's hazardous to rely on a few words alone -- just because a thought fits within the 280-character limit of Twitter or the preview window of a Facebook post doesn't mean it can safely be severed from its ties to when, how, why, and by whom that thought was spoken or put to paper. ■ This habit of turning to quotations out of convenience reflects the larger habit of depending on textbooks rather than primary source materials. Textbooks are of course a necessity, even if they are often a bargain with the devil. There is so much history to survey, and only so much time in which to give young people a general understanding of history. Yet even a person with good intentions can end up steeped in facts without any real understanding of their meaning. Context is crucial, and while textbook authors invariably intend to imbue their summaries with context, the nature of the relationship between student and textbook is one of atomization: Which facts will be on the test? Which dates will I need to remember? What lists will I need to memorize for my AP exam? ■ From a societal level (and often an individual one), we would be better off if we spent more time learning from primary sources in history. Primary sources can't do all of the work on their own, of course, but with the appropriate contextual framework and some light assistance from supplemental materials, footnotes, and thoughtful editorial framing, they can do a much better job of offering the student a more complete understanding of historical events in a way that textbooks are simply incapable of delivering. ■ People who obtain a textbook-based understanding of history might be forgiven for thinking that King's "I Have a Dream" speech is the whole story. If trained to believe that all that matters is the historian's highlight reel, then people are apt to believe that they've seen the most important bits if they've made it to the end of the textbook. ■ Thus, knowing about the speech is better than not. Having read the full speech is better than just the pull quotes. Having read the Letter from Birmingham Jail to put the speech in context is better than reading the speech alone. Reading the full book ("Why We Can't Wait") is better than reading only the letter. Each step takes more time and effort than the one before, but along the way one escapes the fragmentary facts of a history test and enters the start of a more comprehensive understanding. ■ Moreover, in the context of civil rights -- as in most other struggles for freedom and justice -- it is better to be persuaded by the original words of the original figures who themselves moved history by persuading others than by obtaining a patchwork assembly of facts, even when stitched by a well-meaning and highly-skilled historian. The authors of change, fortunately, are usually quite good at persuading others with the help of words that end up being recorded. ■ In the future, it would be wise for the FBI's public-facing teams to take note of this year's misjudgment and avoid making a repeat. But they're not the only ones susceptible to the error, nor is it isolated to this one Federal holiday: To the greatest extent possible, if we really want people to avoid pulling quotations out of context or appropriating a superficial understanding of history, then we really ought to press for primary sources to play a much more primary role in school. Sometimes those primary sources will be agitating, contentious, or controversial. So be it. History is more complex than what fits inside a tweet.

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