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
The tide of the culture is running against such an effort. The old faith that history is a record of progress is gone. The eighteenth-century idea, inherited from the Renaissance, that one learns virtue and character from the lives of the ancients is also gone. No one to whom I spoke saw any hope of finding equivalents for the old grand syntheses of the textbooks of my student years, like Morison and Commager’s Growth of the American Republic or John D. Hicks’s The American Nation. These books, in turn, distilled the views of older historians like Frederick Jackson Turner, Charles A. Beard, Albert Bushnell Hart, Edward Channing, and Herbert Baxter Adams. All were men who quarreled endlessly among themselves about what gave motion and direction to American history—was it the frontier? the battle between classes? the English background?—but they were united in believing that it had direction. There was a story there that made sense. The Santa Maria, Jamestown, Bunker Hill, Marbury v. Madison, Jackson’s war on the Second Bank of the United States, the carpetbaggers, the railroad builders, the Big Stick—the good people and the bad, the names and dates and slogans we had to remember were parts that added up to a whole adventure in which everyone shared.
For the last forty years academically trained historians have been picking apart this fabric. They have justifiably criticized its oversights, its self-centered nationalism, its insensitivity. But nothing has been left in its place. There is no mural called “The Story of America” for the children to look at and remember, only the uncoordinated bits and pieces represented by the works of popular, public, and academic historians.
Surely those who are involved in history in any way can do better. If they accept this state of affairs, they lose touch with the unifying sense of a shared past. And then they have abandoned themselves and their fellow citizens to a world with “neither joy, nor love, nor light/Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain....” It may be intellectually fashionable to talk of living in a posthistoric age, but it is a bit like Noah’s family commenting that they seem to be in for an extended period of wet weather. Unless we can remember how to build an ark, we’re going under.