Staking A Claim On The Past

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Out of their typewriters the American experience flowed like a welldammed and channeled river. First, colonization. Then Revolution and Constitution. Westward expansion and Jacksonian democracy. On to the Civil War, industrial growth, and finally 1898 and empire. Or “How, under the eyes of God and progress, we became a free, rich, united country and a world power.”

This patriotic, progressive saga was intended to make good democratic citizens, and often did. It went out to the high schools between the covers of various history textbooks and arrived just in time to help “assimilate” a generation of immigrant children.

Starting somewhere after World War II, the progressive historical consensus fell on hard times. Among many causes the growing diversity of the country bulks large. It has been reflected in the makeup and ideas of the historical profession itself. A whole new body of scholarship deals with discovering hitherto ignored or “unempowered” people in the bottom ranks of life, especially women, blacks, Indians, and ethnic minorities.

Or rather “rediscovering,” for a “social history” of ordinary folks has been around since the days of John Bach McMaster and James Harvey Robinson, who ended their teaching careers back in 1920. But they did not accuse the writers of conventional political history of stacking the historical deck so that the past was seen entirely through the eyes of privileged white males.

That is the indictment of some of the more strident 1990s radical historians, and it has provoked some equal intemperance on the conservative side. Fighting words such as hegemonism and political correctness are sprayed around from rhetorical gun barrels. The stakes are nothing less than control of the past.

Carried to its extreme, “multiculturalism” makes the past absurdist theater, with the occasional “role model” but no plot.

In the meantime history teaching is stalled until there is a truce. Complicating the problem is the merging of history with social studies in many secondary school programs, sometimes entrusting it to teachers who have never studied it closely and who work from texts that are a frittata of past and present “problems” for discussion. The past becomes absurdist theater without plot or leading parts, but with “role models” and “influences” constantly whisked in and out of the wings.

It may be surprising to some readers to learn that the social studies movement began in the same progressminded era as the long-accepted “story of America.” A Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education in 1913 found the traditional classical studies for “personal culture” inappropriate. Instead, the new curricular goal would be “social efficiency on the part of the pupil.” To that end, the panel agreed, “recent history is more important than that of ancient times; the history of our own country than that of foreign lands,” and the subject should be imparted in a manner emphasizing “the present life interests of the pupil.” So an ever-widening door was opened.

Unlike the European teachers, ours don’t have an agreed-on usable past to hand down. Which is strange, because this nation of immigrants, more than any other, needs exactly such a bond. Some “multiculturalists,” like the authors of the New York “Declaration of Cultural Interdependence,” disagree. They argue that each subset of Americans should celebrate its own past and that the perfume of democracy will arise from a hundred blooming flowers. Perhaps, though I don’t quite see how a country can be run or achieved in that way. My own prescription for multicultural study is plenty of world history, languages, and literature, starting in the earliest grades.

The National Endowment for the Humanities press release also contained a test given in the European schools, established by the twelve member countries of the European Community, primarily for the children of EC officials. It contains an interesting credo: “Without ceasing to look to their own lands with love and pride, [students] will become in mind Europeans, schooled and ready to complete and consolidate the work of their fathers before them to bring into being a united and thriving Europe.”

Substitute “Americans” and “America” for “Europe” and “Europeans,” and it is not a bad prescription for the goals of a new consensus on a common United States history for children of all backgrounds to share, one that doesn’t dodge ugly facts but leaves room for hope and cooperation. Getting from here to there is the tricky part.