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Staking A Claim On The Past

June 2024
5min read

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.

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.

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