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Is History Dead?

July 2024
14min read


“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” George Santayana said. The wisdom ofthat American philosopher has fallen on deaf ears in recent years. The study of history—if we believe many of the current generation—is not relevant. Fewer courses in history are offered in schools, and often history is lumped into the educational grab bags of “social sciences” or “American studies.” One result, as a New York Times quiz for college students bore out, is an appalling deficiency in knowledge about the American past.

How did we come to this? What is wrong with the way history is taught today? What is the value of studying it?

At the request of AMERICAN HERITAGE , three noted historians of differing persuasions—Page Smith, codirector of the William James Association, Santa Cruz, California; Eugene D. Genovese. of the University of Rochester; and Richard M. Hunt of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Harvard—offer here their thinking on the issue.

Athough much of my own professional life as a historian has been spent in front of a class of students—elementary, secondary, college, and graduate—I have strong misgivings about the way history is being taught in most schools.

It is my belief that a child experiences the world with a particular kind of immediacy. An event a month in the future seems an interminable time away. Time past is bound by the child’s memory. Historical time is infinitely remote and unreal. Many adults live with this immediacy most of their lives. Others gain a historical perspective or “consciousness” that enables them to get a sense of their own relationship to past experience and history. One familiar example would be the indifference that most of us felt as children to the “history” of our parents or grandparents. Later, often when they were dead, we longed to be able to quiz them about the history that they had experienced. Obviously, our interest in history in general grows as we acquire more and more personal history and reflect upon its meaning. We are faced, then, as teachers of history, with the problem of having to teach too soon.

Often in conformity to state law, a certain amount of history is taught in primary and secondary schools under the rubric of social studies, especially the history of the pupil’s own state and nation. Granted that state legislators and school boards are going to insist on a minimum amount of history being taught at the primary and secondary school level, the concern becomes: How is history to be taught?

I suppose for many students the most dismal part of historical study is committing to memory certain selected historical facts: the dates of battles, the names of presidents and generals, and so on. The poor benighted history student learns facts in the same spirit that the chemistry student learns the elements in various compounds.

In the same vein, the treatment of history as “facts” diminishes or destroys the student’s sense of the utility or relevance of history. If “history” is something embalmed in a textbook, it is difficult to experience as an open process and an essential resource. Black students or females or American Indians may see no relation between the events described in the textbook and the experience of their own race or sex. Even when such groups are now included in history texts, a considerable degree of skepticism remains about the claims of the conventional textbook to be a satisfactory account “of what happened.”

History, however, is something infinitely more complex and more interesting than facts. It is profoundly mysterious as well as extraordinarily complex. As simple “information” it is of little use other than on examinations. But an individual’s life is made up of a number of experiences. The individual learns from these experiences and matures in direct proportion to his or her own capacity to reflect on their meaning and absorb into his or her own life their positive residue. The study of history is an extension of this process—this act of incorporating. The capacity to learn from experience clearly does not rest on mastering facts. In our own personal histories we have no notion that the validity of a particular experience depends on our remembering the precise date on which it happened, or, for that matter, the year. I cannot remember the date of the most moving and disturbing experience of my life: the death of my mother. That may indeed be because, for me, that event exists outside of time. I experience it daily.

A fact is often taken to represent something that has happened and is “over,” whereas all true history continues and exists as much in our future as in our past. If the purpose of teaching history were to be defined as making the student aware of the power of history in his or her own life or as making students conscious of themselves as historical beings , it would enable us to think more clearly about the problem of teaching history.

I suspect that a good deal of the moral and spiritual confusion of our day is related to the failure of most people to feel themselves a part of history. Boris Pasternak wrote that man does not die like a dog in a ditch but lives in history. Professional historians have performed a prefrontal lobotomy on the historical consciousness of the American people by embalming our past in scholarly monographs read only by other historians. But they are no substitute for those grander and more spacious narrative histories available to the general reader in the nineteenth century. If the historian does not mediate the past with the present he becomes a luxury society cannot afford.

In order to teach history effectively on the elementary and secondary school level it is necessary to jettison the whole existing schema of academic history and start over with history as experience , rather than history as abstraction, history as nationalistic propaganda, or history as facts. We should start not where the teacher is but where the student is.

One of the most rewarding exercises that I discovered in my own teaching of history was to pair students off, each to write the biography of the other. This utilizes the natural curiosity of the student. They ask each other questions they often would not think of asking themselves: What do your father and mother do for a living?; where did they come from?; where are your grandmother and grandfather, aunts and uncles?; how far back can you trace your ancestors and from what country are they? All those things place us in time and space, in history.

With this kind of incentive, students have often written to relatives who were known to be repositories of family history to collect material about their antecedents. Usually, unless the class is uncommonly homogeneous in background, students discover that a kind of minor congress of nations and races is represented in the classroom itself. In any event, a resourceful teacher will create substantial segments of American history out of the materials that the students have collected about each other.

Another history class might wish to compose a history of its school, and by doing that enter quite naturally into the history of education in America (and the world). And, of course, there is an inexhaustible field for neighborhood and local history, for which interviewing older people in the community should be a basic technique. Each month the class might have an official historian of the class itself, a chronicler charged with organizing the work of the class in such a way as to relate the activities of the class to contemporary events of world history. One student or a group of students might be charged with presenting the Arab case to the United Nations Security Council while another offers the case for the Israelis. One segment of historical studies could start with reports by students on the day’s news. The guiding principle is that history is not “something” in textbooks, but part of the daily experience of every student.

Against the notion of history as facts, I propose the notion of history as drama. I found that my students responded enthusiastically to the opportunity to write plays, or television and movie scripts, dealing with incidents, characters, events, and themes in American history.

An important resource can be found in historical novels—stories like Johnny Tremaine by Esther Forbes, LeGrande Cannon’s Look to the Mountain , and Conrad Richter’s The Trees .

Most useful as resources are the original accounts by participants in historical events, such as Sally Wister’s Diary , a young Quaker girl’s reaction to the American Revolution, and Christopher Hawkins’ account of his adventures on an American privateer during the Revolution.

Art is also an effective way to introduce students to history. Paintings have the virtue of solidifying ideas in a striking way. To move from the eighteenth century’s emphasis on portraiture to the landscapes of the romantic era, and then to the domestic interiors of the late nineteenth century is to track the shift from a cool, classical mode with emphasis on the power of distinguished faces (especially the faces of heroes) to the warm landscapes of the Hudson River School with their lyrical space, and to the interior space of the upper-class family living room. That is a history lesson in itself.

Music, too, is essential as a “source” of history, and its range is vast because the music of different cultures or of different groups within a culture is so striking.

It is essential for a history class to get out of the classroom and into the community. Marc Bloch said historians needed stouter boots, the implication being they should get out of their studies and onto the ground where history took place. In this same spirit, a history class might try to reconstruct the character of the original settlement of the community by a visit to the local graveyard, where the names and dates on the headstones would provide clues to the history of the town. And certainly to the community’s hall of records to poke among early deeds and wills, where every community has substantial amounts of history hidden away.

The task of the teacher of history, therefore, is, in a sense, to beguile his students into entering the strange realm of history by giving them a sense of their reality as historical creatures, and this, of course, has little to do with dates or battles. I would rather produce a student who looked at the world every day with a sense of the extraordinary richness of historical texture that underlies it than one who knew ten thousand dead facts.


The widely perceived decline in the teaching of American history measures the collapse of the élan of the historical profession and reflects a crisis in our national politics and culture. The present focus on methods, whether of teaching or research, primarily represents a flight from content and values, for as T. D. Bernal observed, social scientists become absorbed in methodology whenever they run out of things to say. Today, after years of sneering at history as literature and art, of pretending that precision in measurement or model-building counts more than the generalization of intrinsically messy human experience, and of making history “sophisticated,” we are surprised to find that our young people know and care less.

But what did we expect? An irrational economic system has demanded the prolongation of an increasingly irresponsible period of youth and transformed our educational institutions into the requisite places of detention for those unable to enter the job market. Faced with social problems it cannot solve, it has redefined education as an instrument for problem solving. Of what use is history, much less Greek philosophy, Christian theology, or Elizabethan poetry? And who in the wretched remains of the ruling class that presides over this national catastrophe thinks we ought to give high priority to such useless subjects simply because they are indispensable to civilization? What does civilization have to do with business?

But even corporate executives and government bureaucrats should be able to appear cultured at cocktail parties. And besides, the lower classes have to be kept busy while doing heavy time in the institutions we call schools. So, all has not been lost. We still do get to teach some history.

Unfortunately we are expected to teach history to students who have not been taught to read or write properly, since reading and writing require discipline, long hours of study, and an atmosphere that values learning. The solution: visual aids, grade inflation, TV lectures, and encouragement of “creative participation.” Students who have not read Gibbon, it seems, are nonetheless entitled to be heard on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. After all, in a democracy one person’s opinion is as good as another’s. And never mind that nations and classes, as well as individuals, are the products of a complex development —a history—the mastery of which requires painstaking and ceaseless effort.

Our educational system reflects the larger society, presided over by leaders who no longer believe in anything—increasingly, not even in their own ability to muddle through. The radicals of the 1960’s missed the final absurdity when they blamed our national crisis on our having a ruling class. True, despite pretensions, we do indeed have a ruling class. But, having lost its will and being saddled with a social order incompatible with the developing demands of the world, it can no longer rule. It merely dispenses patronage, plays policeman, and prevents the worst. It no longer possesses a philosophy to justify itself even to itself. Much less does it retain confidence that it can employ its subjects, keep its children off drugs, prevent the bankruptcy of its cities, or assert that slight degree of moral authority adequate to close down “massage parlors” and put pimps, pornographers, topless-bottomless entrepreneurs, and others who trade on the degradation of women and the corruption of children in jail where they belong.

American educators, even the most radical, work for this ruling class, although admittedly with more autonomy than their colleagues in most countries. There is a limit to what we can do to defend the traditional values of a society that no longer cares, or to instill values that respect but transcend the traditional.

The teaching of American history ought to be easy, for our country has had a genuinely great history that could fire the imagination and engage the loyalty of young people. Yet, not many teachers present American history in a positive spirit today, at least not convincingly.

It should be possible to insist that, for all its crimes, America has offered a freer as well as more prosperous environment for a larger number of people than has any other; that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights have been a beacon of hope to freedom-loving and democratic peoples everywhere; that the glory of our Founding Fathers lay in their ability to accept human frailty and yet to devise instruments of government capable of bringing out the good in people; that if slavery was a national disgrace and disaster, so in proportion was the grandeur of the struggle of both blacks and whites to destroy it; that despite wars of aggression, from those against Mexico and Spain to that against Vietnam, our people have forged a political culture that retains elements of enduring value.

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.

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.



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