Is History Dead?


The task of the teacher of history, therefore, is, in a sense, to beguile his students into entering the strange realm of history by giving them a sense of their reality as historical creatures, and this, of course, has little to do with dates or battles. I would rather produce a student who looked at the world every day with a sense of the extraordinary richness of historical texture that underlies it than one who knew ten thousand dead facts.


The widely perceived decline in the teaching of American history measures the collapse of the élan of the historical profession and reflects a crisis in our national politics and culture. The present focus on methods, whether of teaching or research, primarily represents a flight from content and values, for as T. D. Bernal observed, social scientists become absorbed in methodology whenever they run out of things to say. Today, after years of sneering at history as literature and art, of pretending that precision in measurement or model-building counts more than the generalization of intrinsically messy human experience, and of making history “sophisticated,” we are surprised to find that our young people know and care less.

But what did we expect? An irrational economic system has demanded the prolongation of an increasingly irresponsible period of youth and transformed our educational institutions into the requisite places of detention for those unable to enter the job market. Faced with social problems it cannot solve, it has redefined education as an instrument for problem solving. Of what use is history, much less Greek philosophy, Christian theology, or Elizabethan poetry? And who in the wretched remains of the ruling class that presides over this national catastrophe thinks we ought to give high priority to such useless subjects simply because they are indispensable to civilization? What does civilization have to do with business?

But even corporate executives and government bureaucrats should be able to appear cultured at cocktail parties. And besides, the lower classes have to be kept busy while doing heavy time in the institutions we call schools. So, all has not been lost. We still do get to teach some history.

Unfortunately we are expected to teach history to students who have not been taught to read or write properly, since reading and writing require discipline, long hours of study, and an atmosphere that values learning. The solution: visual aids, grade inflation, TV lectures, and encouragement of “creative participation.” Students who have not read Gibbon, it seems, are nonetheless entitled to be heard on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. After all, in a democracy one person’s opinion is as good as another’s. And never mind that nations and classes, as well as individuals, are the products of a complex development —a history—the mastery of which requires painstaking and ceaseless effort.

Our educational system reflects the larger society, presided over by leaders who no longer believe in anything—increasingly, not even in their own ability to muddle through. The radicals of the 1960’s missed the final absurdity when they blamed our national crisis on our having a ruling class. True, despite pretensions, we do indeed have a ruling class. But, having lost its will and being saddled with a social order incompatible with the developing demands of the world, it can no longer rule. It merely dispenses patronage, plays policeman, and prevents the worst. It no longer possesses a philosophy to justify itself even to itself. Much less does it retain confidence that it can employ its subjects, keep its children off drugs, prevent the bankruptcy of its cities, or assert that slight degree of moral authority adequate to close down “massage parlors” and put pimps, pornographers, topless-bottomless entrepreneurs, and others who trade on the degradation of women and the corruption of children in jail where they belong.

American educators, even the most radical, work for this ruling class, although admittedly with more autonomy than their colleagues in most countries. There is a limit to what we can do to defend the traditional values of a society that no longer cares, or to instill values that respect but transcend the traditional.

The teaching of American history ought to be easy, for our country has had a genuinely great history that could fire the imagination and engage the loyalty of young people. Yet, not many teachers present American history in a positive spirit today, at least not convincingly.

It should be possible to insist that, for all its crimes, America has offered a freer as well as more prosperous environment for a larger number of people than has any other; that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights have been a beacon of hope to freedom-loving and democratic peoples everywhere; that the glory of our Founding Fathers lay in their ability to accept human frailty and yet to devise instruments of government capable of bringing out the good in people; that if slavery was a national disgrace and disaster, so in proportion was the grandeur of the struggle of both blacks and whites to destroy it; that despite wars of aggression, from those against Mexico and Spain to that against Vietnam, our people have forged a political culture that retains elements of enduring value.