Staking A Claim On The Past

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Occasionally two or three related news stories hit my historical eye in a sequence that generates a current of reflection. Such was the case recently when, first, I read one of many reports of the furor raised this spring in Washington by an exhibition in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art, called “The West as America.”

Readers will be aware that it consisted of a series of celebrated nineteenth-century renderings of Western images with interpretive captions explaining that these representations pandered to the prejudices and anxieties of white America in the heyday of social Darwinism. I reserve judgment, not having seen the show, and the subject is elsewhere addressed in these pages (see “The Life and Times”). I was, however, pleased to learn that visitors lined up to write angry comments in the guest book. I’d rather see history debated than ignored any day.

Next came a closely related newsclip. In New York a panel of educators recommended that the social studies curriculum for the state’s schoolchildren be “broadly revised to place much greater emphasis on the roles of nonwhite cultures in American life,” according to an article in The New York Times . The report is titled “One Nation, Many Peoples: A Declaration of Cultural Interdependence.” Among other things, it says that “previous ideals of assimilation to an Anglo-American model” are being “set aside”; and that many people are “no longer comfortable with the requirement … that they shed their specific cultural differences in order to be considered American.”

It also recommended that the approach to social studies “shift the emphasis from the mastery of information to the development of fundamental tools, concepts and intellectual processes that make people learners who can approach knowledge in a variety of ways.”

While I was pondering this, the third story hit my desk. This was a release from the National Endowment for the Humanities: “National Achievement Tests Reveal Other Countries’ High Standards.” Enclosed was a sampling of what are essentially college-entrance history exams for European students. The material was enlightening and sobering.

French youngsters were asked for a four-hour essay on one of three topics: Soviet domestic policies; resistance to the Nazis in Europe; or presidential power and the Constitution in United States foreign and domestic policy since 1945.

In England and Wales 1989 candidates for the General Certificate of Secondary Education (comparable to our high school diploma) got two hours for three essays on selected topics in British history from 1485 to 1714, including religious wars, changes in agriculture, colonization, and the rise of Parliament. Questions included “Why did James 1 find it more difficult than Elizabeth I to deal with the House of Commons?” and “How might doctors in England in the mid-seventeenth century have reacted to Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood?”

University-bound German students take an exam called the Abitur , whose contents vary in the different states of the republic. Bavaria allowed three and a half hours for two essays from six topic areas: German nationalism in the period from 1830 to 1848, the origins of German industrial society, the Germany of the kaiser and the Great Powers, the Weimar Republic, National Socialism, and Germany “in the context of the global political constellations of the postwar period”—as lumbering a way as I know to say “the Cold War.”

What struck me was that French, British, and German educational authorities seemed in clear agreement on what history was all about. Its major subject was the nation-state. The organizing questions were: How did a particular nation come into being, how was it governed, how did it make a living, how did it get on with the rest of the world, what were its dominant ideas? In sum, the old bread-and-butter staples of political, economic, diplomatic, and military history with a bit of culture added.

There’s an official consensus about history on the other side of the Atlantic that’s lacking here. I believe that this absence helps (and only helps) explain the well-recorded and disturbing ignorance of the past shown by American students. It is hard to set and enforce standards of historical knowledge when there’s no pedagogical agreement on what “history” embraces or why it’s taught.

There once was an American consensus, but it has become badly frayed. How that happened is a long and important story that may be illuminated by a little background.

“The American past” that some of us remember from lessons we studied as long as fifty years ago was itself a kind of social invention. It dates roughly from the period 1890 to 1920, and it was the work of a band of scholars—Turner, Channing, Beard, Hart, Dunning, and others—now remembered mainly by graduate students in history. They themselves were once graduate students, the first generation of “scientifically trained” historians with Ph.D.’s. They fused the McGuffey Reader stories of individual American valor and character, plus the holiday orations, poems, and legends, into a strictly factual, cohesive narrative that followed the emerging “laws” of historical development.