History Lessons Are Turning My Kid Into a Scofflaw (and I Couldn't Be Happier)

Looking at the past tests and develops the values you bring to your life-including a healthy contempt for authority.


"If I'd lived then, I'd have still gone to saloons," Anthony, my 11-year-old son, said as we watched the Ken Burns documentary, Prohibition. "But I'd have carried a gun in case I had to deal with police or militia."

He commented after a scene in which Portland, Maine's Mayor Neal Dow—nicknamed "the sublime fanatic"—ordered troops in 1855 to fire on an angry crowd outside City Hall. They had gathered to protest the statewide ban on alcoholic beverages that Dow pushed through in his zeal to make the world a better place as he conceived such a thing. Like most fanatics, sublime or otherwise, the mayor didn't have a lot of patience for disagreement. One man was killed and seven wounded that day by the forces of mandatory sobriety.

Interesting, well-produced, and drawing on multiple sources and experts, Prohibition lends itself beautifully to our homeschooling efforts. It does a thorough job of exploring the religious, reformist, and nativist roots of first the Temperance movement and then the push for full-on Prohibition. We've recently studied the Progressive Era and the fight for women's suffrage, and the documentary pulls in those histories, showing how social movements influence one another and often come together to achieve common goals—sometimes good, and other times leading to disastrous exercises in self-righteous presumption like Prohibition.

The Prohibition website includes excellent additional material, too, including an activity asking students to decide between two conceptions of the role of government:

  1. In a democracy, people should have the freedom to make their own choices and be responsible for their actions. If they want to indulge in destructive personal behavior, that's their business, not the governments.
  2. A democratic government is made up of its citizens and a major responsibility of government is to guarantee equal opportunity for all. The government has a duty to alleviate social ills and guarantee that no one is in need.

Those competing views of the state play an ongoing role through many of our lessons. Anthony knows my own opinions, and is no doubt influenced by them, but I always make sure to present him with competing viewpoints. Personally, I think the past speaks for itself as to which of those roles works better in practice, but I also see my job as raising my son to be a rational adult, not a clone of me.

So when we studied the Progressive Era we worked with a series of Great Courses lectures by a college professor sympathetic to the progressives, online lectures from Hillsdale College that have a broadly conservative tone, readings from Thaddeus Russell's A Renegade History of the United States, and excerpts from Illiberal Reformers by Thomas C. Leonard. Anthony got an earful of would-be reformers decrying poverty and abuses in the world around them, but also disparaging individuals as "plastic lumps of human dough." He read pre-presidential Woodrow Wilson dismissing individual rights as "nonsense," and perused objections that adherence to respect for natural individual rights "prevent us from determining what social or individual tendencies we shall favor, what we shall depress; It will in general prevent us from imposing a social ideal, and compel us to leave a social anarchy."

Anthony considered the Great Courses presenter too respectful of self-appointed shepherds who he found to be condescending and bossy, and the Hillsdale lectures overly deferential to religious authority—off-putting, to him, in its own way. To him, the pseudoscientific racism of the era, culminating in calls for eugenics controls and even elimination of whole populations, thoroughly tainted the confidence of the period's reformers that they were uniquely qualified to mold those lumps human of dough they saw all around them.

The sort of molding that evangelical Protestants and progressives attempted during Prohibition, for instance. Or that their heirs attempted during the war on drugs. And with—Well, it goes on and on through examples that my son himself offered up as dangerous intrusions into other people's lives by people absolutely convinced of their own wisdom.

Properly taught—which is to say, not the choppy and sleep-inducing way I experienced it in New York's public schools—history is pretty damned interesting. Few things occur in isolation without affecting other events. Movements split, merge, and create alliances. Individuals make decisions based on their values.

So a couple of weeks after Anthony learned about Woodrow Wilson criticizing the idea of the Constitution restraining government power, he read about war-time President Wilson muzzling critics of his administration, seizing sectors of the American economy, and conscripting men into the military.

Huh. Didn't see that coming.

Well, my kid sort of did. He long ago realized that history lessons aren't just snapshots of the past. They're also case studies of how people responded in certain situations—and insights into how their descendants might behave when faced with crises and opportunities.

And not just other people. Because, as you read through history, exploring the outcomes of movements, individual activists, crusades, and dissenters, you test your own values. What would you have done in certain situations in the past, and if faced with similar scenarios in the future?

Anthony would have been a bootlegger during Prohibition, he tells me. He may grow up to do something similar to undermine other restrictive laws, he boasts.

We all have chances for an education. Maybe, if your teachers have done well by you, one lesson you take away is that control freaks full of confidence in their plans for your life and contempt for your own preferences should be met with active defiance—whether in 1855 Portland, or during Prohibition, or in some situation to come.

At least, I like to think so. My kid seems to agree.