Is History Dead?

PrintPrintEmailEmail

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” George Santayana said. The wisdom ofthat American philosopher has fallen on deaf ears in recent years. The study of history—if we believe many of the current generation—is not relevant. Fewer courses in history are offered in schools, and often history is lumped into the educational grab bags of “social sciences” or “American studies.” One result, as a New York Times quiz for college students bore out, is an appalling deficiency in knowledge about the American past.

How did we come to this? What is wrong with the way history is taught today? What is the value of studying it?

At the request of AMERICAN HERITAGE , three noted historians of differing persuasions—Page Smith, codirector of the William James Association, Santa Cruz, California; Eugene D. Genovese. of the University of Rochester; and Richard M. Hunt of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Harvard—offer here their thinking on the issue. And for those of our readers who want to test their own knowledge of American history, we provide a sampling of the Times quiz on pages 88-89.

 

ADAPTED FROM AN ARTICLE BY PAGE SMITH TO APPEAR IN THE JANUARY, 1977, ISSUE OF Learning, The Magazine for Creative Teaching ; COPYRIGHT © 1976 BY EDUCATION TODAY COMPANY, INC.

Athough much of my own professional life as a historian has been spent in front of a class of students—elementary, secondary, college, and graduate—I have strong misgivings about the way history is being taught in most schools.

 

It is my belief that a child experiences the world with a particular kind of immediacy. An event a month in the future seems an interminable time away. Time past is bound by the child’s memory. Historical time is infinitely remote and unreal. Many adults live with this immediacy most of their lives. Others gain a historical perspective or “consciousness” that enables them to get a sense of their own relationship to past experience and history. One familiar example would be the indifference that most of us felt as children to the “history” of our parents or grandparents. Later, often when they were dead, we longed to be able to quiz them about the history that they had experienced. Obviously, our interest in history in general grows as we acquire more and more personal history and reflect upon its meaning. We are faced, then, as teachers of history, with the problem of having to teach too soon.

Often in conformity to state law, a certain amount of history is taught in primary and secondary schools under the rubric of social studies, especially the history of the pupil’s own state and nation. Granted that state legislators and school boards are going to insist on a minimum amount of history being taught at the primary and secondary school level, the concern becomes: How is history to be taught?

I suppose for many students the most dismal part of historical study is committing to memory certain selected historical facts: the dates of battles, the names of presidents and generals, and so on. The poor benighted history student learns facts in the same spirit that the chemistry student learns the elements in various compounds.

In the same vein, the treatment of history as “facts” diminishes or destroys the student’s sense of the utility or relevance of history. If “history” is something embalmed in a textbook, it is difficult to experience as an open process and an essential resource. Black students or females or American Indians may see no relation between the events described in the textbook and the experience of their own race or sex. Even when such groups are now included in history texts, a considerable degree of skepticism remains about the claims of the conventional textbook to be a satisfactory account “of what happened.”

History, however, is something infinitely more complex and more interesting than facts. It is profoundly mysterious as well as extraordinarily complex. As simple “information” it is of little use other than on examinations. But an individual’s life is made up of a number of experiences. The individual learns from these experiences and matures in direct proportion to his or her own capacity to reflect on their meaning and absorb into his or her own life their positive residue. The study of history is an extension of this process—this act of incorporating. The capacity to learn from experience clearly does not rest on mastering facts. In our own personal histories we have no notion that the validity of a particular experience depends on our remembering the precise date on which it happened, or, for that matter, the year. I cannot remember the date of the most moving and disturbing experience of my life: the death of my mother. That may indeed be because, for me, that event exists outside of time. I experience it daily.

A fact is often taken to represent something that has happened and is “over,” whereas all true history continues and exists as much in our future as in our past. If the purpose of teaching history were to be defined as making the student aware of the power of history in his or her own life or as making students conscious of themselves as historical beings , it would enable us to think more clearly about the problem of teaching history.