American History Is Falling Down

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In the mid-sixteenth century, a blind and deaf old Spanish soldier named Bernai Díaz del Castillo set out to write an account of what he had seen and done as a follower of Hernando Cortés during the conquest of Mexico. “Unfortunately,” he noted by way of introduction, “I have gained no wealth to leave to my children and descendants except this story, which is a remarkable one.”

There is little doubt that Castillo would have enjoyed having gold, silver, and estates to pass along with his narrative. But he recognized that the simple tale of what happened was a treasure in itself. In that respect he was much smarter than most of today’s Americans.

The remarkable story of the American past is not being handed down in any satisfactory way to our descendants. Most of the blame must fall on American educators. At the highest levels of the university system, a majority of professors no longer appear to believe that there is such a thing as the story of the past. They see history as a mosaic without pattern or, at a minimum, with many small ones that never add up to much. At the grade school and high school level, the men and women who create the curriculum see history as a grab bag of what they call “material” for lessons in how society works, and not as a tale to be told.

As a result there is a vacuum of information about our shared past. Apart from a few serious historians (in and out of the academy, though mostly out), the emptiness is filled by the sound and fury of commercialized anniversary hype, in the course of which we are losing one of the prime sources of national identity and civic spirit. If people are ignorant of who they are and how they came to be, they cannot judge their leaders and are subject to every passing foolishness, every plausible scoundrel who would divide and delude them.

I was reminded of all this last year at a meeting of the Society of American Historians held at the New York Yacht Club. I had been invited to present the society’s Bruce Catton Prize for Lifetime Achievement in history to C. Vann Woodward. The society, an organization limited to two hundred and fifty elected members, was founded in 1939 “to encourage literary distinction in the writing of history and biography.”

The evening was very satisfying. Woodward, who is professor emeritus at Yale, was clearly a perfect choice for the award. Not only has he written books that changed the way historians and lawmakers view the history of the South after the Civil War, he stands in a line of historians and teachers who once could take pride that the mark of the educated American was an interest in their subject. During the presentation the approving ghosts of Catton, the first editor of American Heritage, and of Allan Nevins, founder of the society, could almost be sensed hovering around the guests in the room. These included not only distinguished professors but many historians and biographers whose names have appeared on best-seller lists during the last two decades, including Barbara Tuchman, Nancy Milford, Walter Lord, David McCullough, and Robert Caro. Also on hand were representatives of the major publishers. History, and the business of history, it appeared, were prospering.

Next morning I found a scene not nearly so exciting at the New York Penta Hotel, only a few blocks away, where the seventy-ninth annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians was in progress. Unlike the society, the organization is open to any dues-paying member and is composed mostly of the men and women who teach the history of the United States in colleges and universities throughout the country. (To confuse matters slightly, there is also the American Historical Association [AHA], which enrolls college-level teachers of the history of any part of the world whatever.)

I had attended many OAH conventions myself as a young professor in the early 1960s. They had been lively affairs. Throngs of rapid talkers swirled and roared up and down hotel corridors and formed cheerful eddies in the bars. Expectant, optimistic job seekers hurried past on their way to interviews in rooms where hiring committees sat behind piles of dossiers spilling over the remnants of room-service breakfasts. At cocktail time publishers threw large, hard-drinking parties in hopes that the sheer weight of conviviality would persuade the best-known professors to sign contracts for textbooks potentially worth millions.