Is History Dead?

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Finally, more than the study of most other subjects, learning about the past can give us a sense of our own values: what we really believe in and consider important. Values are preferences; they are also concepts of the preferable. When we read about the Salem witchcraft trials in seventeenth-century America, about the spread of industrialization throughout the nation in the nineteenth century, and about the political leadership of President Roosevelt in World War II , we immediately come into contact with the preferences of our ancestors, what they were willing to fight and die for, and then possibly what we ourselves might value as meaningful. I think it is too much to claim history as a “moral science.” Nevertheless any search for “the way it was” with those who came before us is bound to be a moral experience, one that calls on us to ponder our own values and to judge ourselves while we are judging the actions of others.

How receptive are we in America today to history’s offerings? My answer is: only moderately receptive. Part of the problem, I suspect, relates to our tendency to react to the past with relatively fixed approbation or disapprobation. We incline either to oversell or to sell out our history. Some of the glamorized celebrations of the American Bicentennial have only contributed to an oversold view of our nation’s virtues and triumphs. They may entertain and even present a point of view, but in the end they only misinform and trivialize the national experience.

On the other hand, I notice today a very strong counter trend to such sentimentalism, an “uglifying” view of American history. Instead of portraying the colorful record of the nation’s achievements and failures, some historians operating on radical and Marxist assumptions present a wholly bleached—or, better stated, denigratory—picture. One such historian recently wrote in a national magazine: “We have little or nothing to be proud of. The United States was one of the last countries to abolish slavery. It was one of the last to adopt a social welfare system. Today it is one of the last to address itself to questions of socioeconomic inequality.”

Does there exist a middle ground between such extremes? Can we Americans open ourselves to a balanced view? Can we really find a true and usable past?

I know some students who call “objectivity” a myth. Since objectivity is an impossible goal, they feel liberated from its sanctions and pursue the most extravagant kinds of “politicized subjectivities” in dealing with social and economic problems of the American past. I have met others who believe the study of the past itself is an anachronism in an age of “the unprecedented present.” For them all things are totally new in our period of modern weapons of war, the atomic bomb, computer technology, mass TV, supersonic transportation, and birth-control pills.

To me it makes no sense to jettison the struggle for objectivity just because the goal is unattainable. Does the surgeon give up all possible antiseptic precautions in his operating room because he realizes total antisepsis is impossible? As for those who dismiss any and all study of the past, I can only mention that most ages considered themselves modern and unprecedented; ours is no different, perhaps only speeded up and all the more in need of perspective and the “moral experience” that comes from a deep appreciation of where we have come from.