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Who Owns Our History?

June 2024
5min read

A new book argues that Americans are deeply interested in the past—but in highly personal ways

Musings by professional historians about their calling are rarely front-page material, but in their own way they matter. When the results of their self-scrutiny trickle down to the curricula that your children and grandchildren will be taught, they can matter a great deal. It is for that reason, readers, that I am emboldened to give this month’s column to a summary view of a new book by Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past: The Meaning of History in American Life (New York: Columbia University Press). The very fact that you hold this magazine in your hands shows that you have a lively interest in the subject, and as a lifelong “popularizer” of history, so do I.

In a sense, the book’s theme is: “Take that, Lynne Cheney and William Bennett.” It is a sharp rejoinder to conservatives who lament that Americans are losing their national past because tests show that high school (and college) graduates cannot correctly place the Civil War and the Civil Service Act in chronological order or distinguish between Andrew and Stonewall Jackson. The blame for this sad state of affairs presumably rests not only on a general cultural shallowness and breakdown of authority but with a cabal of leftist teachers who give more space to Harriet Tubman and Sen. Joe McCarthy than to Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jefferson.

Not at all, these two scholars reply; Americans are vibrantly engaged with their yesterdays, but after their own fashion. In 1994, armed with some research grants, they supervised telephone interviews about historical memory with a “national sample” of some eight hundred Americans and with another approximate two hundred each for three “minority samples” —African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and Native Americans, the latter all Oglala Sioux living on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. Full documentation is provided on the methods of choice, and for argument’s sake I’ll take the scientific accuracy of the poll as given. But the questions were not about how much school-taught “history” the respondents remembered or about the feelings generated by invitingly fuzzy words like tradition and heritage . The questioners stuck to the simple term the past. They asked what activities related to the past the subjects had engaged in during the preceding year, whom they trusted most as sources of information about the past, what occasions made them feel most connected to it, and which of a choice of pasts (that of their family, ethnic group, community currently lived in, or the United States) was most important to them. The six main chapters describe and quote freely and engagingly from the replies of those interviewed. They are the best part and remind me of the pleasures of reading Studs Terkel’s works. Appendices break down the results by age, gender, education, and income as well as by ethnicity.

If these subjects are in fact typical, Americans in 1994 were anything but indifferent to the past. More than half of them preserved photographs and videos, watched historical documentaries, movies, and docudramas, held family reunions, visited museums, and read books about the past or magazines like, yes indeed, American Heritage . Lesser numbers collected antiques, worked on family genealogies, kept journals, joined local and “amateur” historical societies, and even dressed up to re-enact battles. What they did not do was remember the “story of America” conscientiously drummed into them in fifth and tenth grades, the “national narrative” of triumphant democracy, wilderness to empire, Jamestown to Cape Kennedy et cetera that is the substance of textbooks. While not fully blaming their teachers, they found the conventional lists of characters, causes, dates, and data irrelevant and boring. (I do wonder, though, if a general survey of “what bored me in school” would not prove equally dismaying to specialists in other subjects.)

Much as they may have enjoyed history on the tube or in the movie houses, the sampled group was not undiscriminating about the sources of knowledge of the past. It rated television and movies lowest in trustworthiness—5.0 on a scale of 1 to 10. Nonfiction books earned a 6.4 rating, college history professors a 7.3, and the three highest spots went to museums (8.4), personal accounts from relatives (8.0), and conversations with eyewitnesses (7.8). Those near and dear earned similar high marks when it came to establishing a sense of connection with the past. Family gatherings rated 7.9, with museum visits coming next at 7.3 and celebrating holidays at 7.0. And- I promise this is the last use of those impersonal numbers—when asked to rank the importance to them of knowing the pasts of their families, their ethnic groups, their current communities, or the United States, fully 66 percent of the entire national sample chose their families first and a mere 22 per- cent had the United States at the top. African-Americans likewise were most interested in their family sagas, but 26 percent of them put their racial past on top, and a full 38 percent of the Pine Ridge Oglala Sioux did likewise.

Would a “new history” based on such findings just endow hobbies with undeserved seriousness?

Traditionalists will lament that even among whites alone, only 24 out of 100 consider the past of the United States the most important for them to know. But they may be cheered to learn that when questioned in depth, respondents seemed equally uninterested in large, generalized narratives of the burdens and struggles of the working classes or other victims of “oppression”—though again, African-Americans reacted positively to stories of the civil rights movement of the last few decades.

What all these men and women seem to want of “the past” is, in Thelen’s words, to use the experience of their forebears to “frame their quests” for “the kinds of people they wanted to be and the futures they wanted to carve for themselves.” They wanted to participate in “building narratives” of identity and purpose, and in doing so they were wary of the “mediation,” to use the book’s term, of presumed experts. The terms are a little off-putting to me, but the intent is clear: They trusted whatever and whoever was closest to them. Asked to name characters of the past who influenced them most, a large number chose parents and grandparents. The events of the past most important in their eyes were within the memories of living ancestors: the Depression, World War II, and Vietnam. Those inclined to look back farther were in many cases evangelical Christians, seeing the hand of God in the traditional national success story, or Native Americans and African-Americans who detested it for the way it demeaned and demonized them. I was surprised not to find more people reporting simple pleasure in “the big story,” but the questions as framed may not have encouraged that answer.

The two authors, in separate after-words, try to imagine ways in which this interest can be tapped to heal the acknowledged troubles of the history-teaching profession. They seem to call for some kind of interplay among archivists, the directors of historical clubs and museums, media managers and creators, and the public—or rather many “publics”—to construct together a kind of “fundamentally historical culture” that would, to quote Thelen once more, “recognize similarities and respect differences in grandmothers’ stories, museum exhibitions, and manuscript collections as trusted sources” and make possible the building of bridges between personal “pasts” and those that cover larger groupings and run farther back.

What do we make of all this? Is it residual sixties’ radical “power to the people” babble? Not really. Almost seventy years ago, as Rosenzweig and Thelen duly note, Prof. Carl Becker, who wrote like an angel, published an essay titled “Everyman His Own Historian,” urging his academic colleagues to address themselves less to arguing fine points with one another and more to the general audience in quest of a “usable past.” For him, to judge by his published works, this meant illustrating the links between the seminal events and ideas of historical eras and the public issues of a given contemporary moment. Becker was sometimes grouped with other practitioners of a so-called new history that aimed to uncover the powerful historical forces discoverable in the daily activities of plain folk rather than confine itself to kingly courts and fields—and that, too, dates from very early in this century.

What would another “new history” based on findings such as these look like? Would it merely endow hobbies with undeserved seriousness? Would it be unable to separate “granny tales,” old-timers’ recollections, and local legends—all notoriously unreliable, even if delightful—from narratives soundly researched and founded on hard evidence? Could places be found for both? Could honesty be maintained in a multifaceted history that recognized not one but many different “pasts” of equal validity?

And of course, would the fading of the traditional civically inspiring and binding national narrative be a thrust toward that “disuniting of America” that conservatives fear? I began to be afraid so some years ago, and even expressed my concern in these very pages (“American History Is Falling Down,” February 1987). Perhaps changing times call for a second look. Yet somehow I have certainly never had a problem in assuming that even though my own ancestors did not reach these shores until around 1900, men like Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln had made and preserved the United States for people like me. I rather thought I was discharging a debt to them in telling the story to people like you.

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