American History Is Falling Down

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The NCPH has its own journals, institutes, and conferences. Each group is also pushing for programs to train college and graduate students specifically in public history techniques—so that an advanced student might prepare a computer-assisted environmental-impact statement instead of a dissertation in order to graduate. In the end the public historians claim to be a robust and growing company of scholars outside the frozen professorial ranks. They say that in their custodial hands the study of how to find and apply pieces of the past is doing quite well.

But perhaps the most visible sign of vitality in history is the popular demand for it. The fires were stoked by the long series of bicentennials that began in 1976 and will run through 1989 (after which the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s first voyage will be sailing toward us). Historical anniversaries like the recent birthdaycelebration of the Statue of Liberty offer irresistible opportunities to editors, entertainers, and politicians as well as to the historians whom they consult. The reading public is apparently eager to share in lives of the past. Larry Shapiro, of the Book-of-the-Month Club, says that some of the club’s most popular titles over the years have been in history and biography.

Ever since Roots, historical “docudramas” and “mini-series” have flourished on television and competed successfully for top ratings. And both television and movie screens have been lit by hundreds of hours’ worth of awardwinning documentary and feature films on such diverse topics as the Brooklyn Bridge, the IWW, and women factory workers during the Second World War.

“History” is not sick. On the other hand, the teaching of history may be.

History teaching is in trouble at the lowest levels partly because it shares in the problems overwhelming a school system that is, for the most part, old, overcrowded, and broke—and not certain of whether it is supposed to be teaching history or good citizenship, social hygiene, and self-awareness. The draft of the eleventh-grade social studies curriculum for New York State, for example, says that on completion of the program, “the student will be a person who can demonstrate the ability to make rational and informed decisions about economic, social and political questions confronting himself or herself, the society and the interdependent world. Such decisions will draw upon the lessons of history and the social sciences.” There isn’t much room for a sense of the living past in that ambitious prescription—much less in the sanitized patriotism that some right-wingers want to push back into the classroom.

History teaching is also in trouble at the highest levels because, over time, academic arrogance allowed many professors to lose touch with their base in popular culture. That is unfortunate, for the academy does teach things worth taking to heart: respect for facts; awareness of complexity and change; caution in judgment; the willingness to submit to the criticism of informed peers. In other times the campus historians had a chance to popularize these values—as well as new ideas and discoveries—by addressing as many people as possible who enjoyed the drama of history. They blew their opportunity by largely disregarding anyone outside their guild. This they did for reasons of fear, snobbery, laziness, vested interests—the usual suspects.

So we have a paradox: The subject matter of history is more popular than ever, but it is taught to schoolchildren only in dilution and is no longer required as part of a college education. At the same time, more than ever, continuity is needed. The bicentennials and other spectacles must be fitted into a context. The historical awareness of a whole people can’t be left entirely to the chance of which books and television shows win the biggest audiences in any one year; the most enjoyable biographies and most readable accounts of a single historical event inevitably deal with isolated points in a landscape of time. But without the map provided by a general knowledge of the past, their connections and overall meaning to us are lost.

A sense of the wholeness of history has to be restored and passed on.

A sense of the wholeness of history has to be restored and passed on, whatever that may take in the way of providing more trained teachers and demanding more years of study. It is that sense of wholeness that makes for good judgments, for good ground for a nation to stand upon.