Is History Dead?

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A spirited defense of our history can no longer minimize the crimes against the Indians, blacks, and white laboring classes, nor can it pretend that imperialism and international hooliganism have played only a minor role in our development. But it can point out that all great nations have meshed the good with the evil and that, if anything, less blood and violence stain our history than that of many other countries.

The restoration of American history to a central place in our national consciousness, not merely our formal curricula, requires the effort of people convinced that our past, whatever its dark features, offers values, experience, and insights that can help reconcile freedom, economic security, peace, and social order in an epoch in which people feel driven to preserve one at the expense of another. Our national leaders—businessmen, technocrats, bureaucrats, and assorted “specialists”—have no such confidence, for the good reason that the social system over which they preside cannot in fact resolve its own crisis. That task, in my opinion, requires the emergence of a socialist political movement capable of substituting moral purpose and social discipline for the anarchy to which modern capitalism has reduced us. And nothing is more important to the moral development as well as the political success of such a movement than a deep appreciation of the historical struggle in America between individual freedom and social order.

American historians today face no greater challenge than the mobilization of their dispirited colleagues to reassert the value of their discipline and to fight politically for its restoration as a required part of the curriculum at all educational levels. To do so, however, they themselves must combine traditional academic standards with respect for such new and legitimate subjects as Afro-American history, the history of women, and social history in general, so as to bring out forcefully the clashing assumptions and values that guarantee vitality and passionate engagement. Their classrooms must become, in the admirable phrase of the conservative historian Stephen Tonsor, “places of ideological contention.”

 

Long ago one of my teachers said something I have always remembered. My classmates and I had been preparing for a history test and we were complaining to him, “What good is it to learn all those facts and dates, kings and battles? We’ll never do anything with them.” Patiently our teacher replied, “ But don’t you see? The point of studying history is not what you can do with it but what it can do to you.”

What can the study of history do to us? Let’s begin with the obvious. It can entertain and divert us. It can take us out of ourselves, out of our routine lives, and transplant us into faraway places and times, bring us up close into the company of remarkable people, show us how they struggled, doubted, despaired, persevered, lucked out, won out, failed, lived happily ever after, or died in misery—just as we all do, or will do, on a lesser or perhaps even greater scale.

How many of us have ever been in the presence of a mind like Thomas Jefferson’s, explored an unknown wilderness like the Pacific Northwest, fought a Civil War against enemies who could be our brothers, lived through a really devastating depression, had to make decisions like those of President Kennedy’s during the Cuban missile crisis?

Then, too, the reading of history can inform us by providing factual knowledge and deeper understanding about the events, people, and cause-and-effect relationships of the past. My answer to my own students today who complain about the “cut and dried” type of memorization required in historical study is that, after all, it is really important to “get the story straight” and to “know the facts” before going on to generalize about “the real reasons” or the “basic causes” of specific events. How many times today do we hear glib formulations about the meaning of the First Amendment to the Constitution, or the experience of slavery in the pre-Civil War South, or the reasons for President Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb over Hiroshima?

I tell my students that history is not a grab bag in which one can grope around to find superficial arguments to support a currently fashionable political position. This is a dangerous game that can also be played by the opponents of their positions, and it is crucial to know the full story before “setting the record straight” and to refrain from abusing the fragile, complicated reality of our forbears’ lives by proclaiming rhetorical analogies.

“The study of the past gives us perspective on the present.” This is perhaps one of the oldest of the schoolteacher’s clichés. Perspective of course implies a particular viewpoint, one based on a certain distance. It enables us to see things “in the long run” and with a kind of maturity and detached judgment. It helps us to observe the contingencies, the accidents, the unforeseens in life while all the time emphasizing the common impulses of surging, struggling humanity below the surface of everyday life. Perspective provides both consolation and challenge. To paraphrase an old prayer, it grants us the serenity to accept those things that cannot be changed, the courage to change what should and can be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference.