Bernard Weisberger feels that Americans should study history because it’s good for them. True enough, but not an argument that will accomplish anything with the public. Also, the decay set in long before he said it did.
I can’t speak for college courses, because I never went, but I took high school history in the mid-1940s. I still recall that text as one of the dullest books I ever read in my life. If I recall correctly, our American history text was economic history, the fad that came before the ones Weisberger talks about. And, of course, economic history is important—which has nothing to do with the fact that 99 percent of high school students won’t learn anything from it. Fortunately I’d been infected with a liking for popular history at age eight by the historical novels of Kenneth Roberts, so I continued to read history. Everyone else in class tuned history out, and stayed that way. High school history texts certainly haven’t improved over the years; I have my son’s word for that.
A friend of the family got an M.A. in history in the 1960s, and then, she says, “I found out there were no jobs, and got an M.A. in chemistry.” My wife, who attended a teachers college in the 1950s, had absolutely no interest in history until we got married, and she found out that it could be fun. Now we both watch televised history and point out the errors—but we didn’t get any of our expertise at school.
Personally I think popular history is the only hope for the field, because I don’t think textbooks will be improved, and therefore students will continue to shun them. Brilliant teachers, of course, can get students to learn anything, but how many of them are there? Teaching ability can be charted on the same curve as scholarship, though the two have nothing else in common.