- Historic Sites
American History Is Falling Down
If the historians themselves are no longer interested in defining the structure of the American past, how can the citizenry understand its heritage? The author examines the disrepair in which the professors have left their subject.
February/March 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 2
Donald Bragaw, the former president of the NCSS, is now chief of the New York State Bureau of Social Studies Education. He spoke to me in his office in a colonnaded building in Albany that he referred to as “the Greek Temple.” He agrees that the pendulum had swung away from chronological history in the 1960s and toward “case studies.” But he adds that, in New York at least, there had always been a mandatory year of straight United States history in the eighth grade and a follow-up year of American studies in the eleventh, and that a new 1987 syllabus proposed for both grade levels is going back to a “fairly traditional setup.”
However, the draft of the eleventh-grade syllabus that he showed me which could be modified by individual school districts—compressed everything from 1607 to 1865 into one-eighth of the school year, except for what it calls the “enduring themes” of the Constitution, which are introduced throughout the modern material. And the suggested content of the rest (which shared billing with “Major Ideas” and “Model Activities”) looked very unspecific to my eye. But Bragaw offered the familiar argument that there was no sense in “force-feeding” students with facts divorced from context or purpose. For many years students were taught the so-called basics, yet to what effect? (As if to say, because the nature of American government had not changed very much, why be bothered by the details of its development or its constitutional parts.) Besides, Bragaw continued, “kids like big ideas. Big ideas hang around in their minds.” He does not think that the ignorance of basic information cited by Ravitch is new or frightening. He had debated her on the issue at the OAH convention and believes she was being too much of an alarmist. There never had been a golden age when every student was a fountain of historical knowledge (as Ravitch herself acknowledged in the Times article). “Every ten years,” said Bragaw, “we ‘prove’ that students don’t know their history. Well, what do we want them to know? And why?”
That seemed, to me, to be exactly the question on which the multiplying cliques of academic historians could not agree.
Still another sign of returning professional health, according to some observers, is the surge of interest in what is termed “public history,” a phrase used interchangeably with “applied history.” There had always been a few openings for trained historians to work in archives, museums, and historical associations, and in government policy-making and planning agencies where they could use their skills in research, analysis, and presentation to do background papers on current problems. In 1950, when I got my Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, several of my fellow students went instead to the State Department. One of them, after two years of slashing his way through the dense Teutonic prose of the German historian Friedrich Meinecke for his dissertation, said he found it a cinch thereafter to study the daily East German press. Another friend joined the Central Intelligence Agency with an untroubled conscience, for this was before Guatemala, Iran, the Bay of Pigs, and Chile, and we were still the good guys.
Yet another friend of mine was Dick Hewlett, whose easy smile disguised what a ferocious competitor he was on the drafty old handball courts under Stagg Field. He eventually joined what was then the Atomic Energy Commission. By 1977 he had become the chief historian of the Department of Energy and had lost none of his edge. At a symposium titled “Broadening the Scope of History,” he lashed out at the academic tendency to downgrade his kind of work. “What do you think would be the outlook for the legal profession today,” he asked, “if the only purpose of law schools were to train law professors?...Why is it that lawyers, physicians, economists, and scientists can involve themselves as professionals in government planning and administration but historians cannot?...The profession has not yet ventured much beyond the hypothetical world of the classroom.”
The time-honored answer of the academics was that the government or corporation-employed historian (or, less politely, “court historian”) had his research topics, and sometimes the preferred answers, chosen by his superiors, so that he lacked the independent curiosity and creativity of the tenured campus scholar. (It was a little difficult to sustain this argument in cases like that of Adm. Samuel Eliot Morison, official historian of the United States Navy in World War II.) When the wellsprings of teaching jobs dried up, however, the parched profession became more flexible in its outlook. The AHA set up the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History, which, among its other duties, encourages high-quality community programs of historical research, preservation, and publication. Public historians—including some involved in business research—organized their own association in 1979, the National Council on Public History (NCPH), and held its 1986 meeting jointly with the OAH in New York City. So the gathering at the Penta was the historians’ counterpart of the merger of the American and National football leagues, or an alliance between osteopathie and general medical associations.