Subscribe to SLJ
Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The 1960s; Rumor, Truth, History — The Challenge for Authors and Schools

Yesterday, the Times ran this piece, a film maker finds fault with the script of a forthcoming Clint Eastwood biopic on J. Edgar Hoover on historical grounds; then today, this: a critique of a new miniseries on The Kennedys, also on historical grounds. Why is it that telling the story of the 60s results in so much controversy? I am particularly interested in these questions having written a book on RFK and just now having completed on one Hoover. But this is not just a personal matter — it applies to all of you who teach, or work in, or have kids in high schools. Once upon a time we could get to the end of US history and be at, what, Pearl Harbor, the A Bomb, Korea and say — sorry kids, that’s it, no time to go further. But now, securely in the 21st Century, ending our US history surveywith events that took place 40 years ago, would be as if, when I was a teenager, we ended US history in the Roaring 20s — as if the Depression and WWII and the 50s had never taken place. The same is true now — to leave out Vietnam, Watergate; Reagan; fall of Communism; the Computer Revolution; the change in immigration laws and thus the population of the US, would be to give our students a US history that does not connect to the nation in which they live. And here is the rub: the 60s.

The problem with the 60s is that it is the moment when the lid began to come off of the kind of secret and scandal that was once covered up. And, since then, we have gone on to pry open that lid even further. We do know a lot about JFK’s obessesive need for sexual conquest, we know a lot about the crimes the FBI committed under Hoover. But has we have overturned myths — whether of Camelot or of the heroic FBI Story — we have also come to treat rumor as fact. Joseph Kennedy was not a bootlegger — there is simply no evidence of that. Hoover was never caught cross-dressing and there is no reason to believe he ever did it. Historians have done the careful sifting of evidence to come to these conclusions. But in the mind of the general adult public, rumor is fact. And so a biopic that did not treat these rumors as true might seem tame, as if it were avoiding hard truth — or stories too juicy to miss.

A school is not a film, so of course a teacher can be careful with rumor and evidence. But that gets to the other problem of the 60s — this whole world of scandal is about sex, drugs, illegal actions by politicians, by the government, by the most admired and trusted peopled in the country. To teach about the 60s is, in effect, for an adult to trust a teenager with the world of adult secrets — as if a parent were confessing an affair or crime
to a teenager. To deal with the 60s is do deal with drives and actions by adults that are not generally discussed openly in schools. Of course these very subjects could make the period all the more interesting to students, and could make flawed giants of the past all the more human and engaging. But that requires being ready to venture into this territory. For adults, the problem of the 60s is that rumor — fed by the revelation of the secrets behind favored myths — has taken the place of evidence. For schools, the challenge is that to deal with the 60s is deal with sex, drugs, and government crimes. But there is no choice — the 60s really happened, and it is neither fair nor responsible to either recycle rumor or avoid them altogether.


  1. Myths abound about American History, thanks to popular culture. Today I had to explain to some very confused third graders that Pocahontas did not, in fact, marry John Smith. I wish Disney would stick to fairy tales.

  2. “Everything thing we have, every great achievement has come from the independent work of some independent mind. Every horror and destruction came from attempts to force men into a herd of brainless, soulless robots. Without personal rights, without personal ambition, without will, hope, or dignity. It is an ancient conflict. It has another name: the individual against the collective.” ~ Howard Roark from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead