I’m sitting in a cinema in Hà Nội watching “Lincoln” and remembering Mr. Miles.
“Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. . . ”
The italics are mine; the words, of course, were written and spoken by Abraham Lincoln – though not in “Lincoln.”
My fifth grade teacher, Mr. Miles, required all of us to memorize Lincoln’s ten-sentence dedication of the battlefield cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
In the film the speech is recited in fits and starts by three young soldiers –two white, one black – to Lincoln himself, implicitly explaining why they are willing to risk their lives for a noble cause.
Why the italics?
To make a point about history, and the teaching and learning of history.
And because of a headline in Tuổi Trẻ:
“In joy, history haters tear exam outlines en mass”
with a photo that showed shreds of said outlines raining like confetti from the windows of Nguyễn Hiền High School in Hồ Chí Minh City.
Everywhere should understand history, especially their own.
The first lessons are simple, but time turns it into a richer, more contentious, more nuanced subject – so long as you don’t get bogged and distracted by the niggling details.
And the confetti was a celebration of the news that history would not be included in the final exam that students here must take in preparation for university.
How strange that Việt Nam, its own history rooted in Confucianism and its exaltation of education, would teach a subject that should inspire in a way that turns off its students.
The confetti was produced by the overdue triumph of complaints about students required to learn such details as the precise dates of epic battles, or the precise count of American warplanes shot down during the “Christmas bombings” of Hà Nội and Hải Phòng.
The “why?” of the Christmas bombings is a much more interesting question.
It is also interesting, incidentally, that the official histories of Việt Nam and the U.S. do not agree on many details, such as the number of warplanes brought down.
History is a struggle of great ideas and ideals that wallow amid great greed, hatred, wrath and evil.
Details like “four score and seven” is factual but not the essence of history.
What moved Lincoln’s audience at Gettysburg to react with a profound silence was the self-evident truth and power of the convictions he expressed.
He only got one thing perfectly wrong:
“The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here. ..”
Getting at the truth is important, but history – the latter drafts of journalism, you might say – always has some point of view.
I often tell friends about the taboos I’ve discovered about Việt Nam’s sense of history.
Still, living here in Việt Nam, I’ve frequently had to question my own sense of history.
Once, while writing an earlier Expat Files dispatch, I nearly committed the faux pas of referring to the Việt Nam “civil war”.
In America, “the Việt Nam War” is widely perceived as a civil war, perhaps not so different from America’s own, but with the superpowers taking sides.
But here in Việt Nam, “the American War” is taught as a war fought against U.S. imperialists and their southern puppets.
Vietnamese students, I submit, would be better served trying to understand the differing perspectives of the war – just as Americans and Việt Kiều would be better served to understand the perspectives of modern Việt Nam well.
The official story is never as rich, contentious and nuanced as the actual history.
“Lincoln” is remarkable in how it explores the political intrigue and philosophical nuance of the nature of human equality.
This Hollywood version of history, while not impeccably factual, dramatizes the debate that abolished slavery in the U.S., and hints at a future in which an African American would be elected president.
Lincoln prevailed by citing the ideals originally advanced by Thomas Jefferson, the slave owner who authored the Declaration of Independence.
Jefferson did not walk the talk – but the words mattered.
Four score and two years after Lincoln invoked Jefferson’s words at Gettysburg, the echoes of history could be heard when Hồ Chí Minh declared Việt Nam’s independence on September 2, 1945, with a direct quote from the declaration of 1776:
“All men are created equal.
They are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. . .”
Old Mr. Miles, I’m sure, would have approved.
By SCOTT HARRIS