Features September 2022
The peril of history
On the present state of the discipline.
We are not supposed to find much joy in the study of history. At least, that’s what Henry Ford believed, and his words on the subject have become legendary: “History,” he said, “is more or less bunk.” A century later, and that view of history doesn’t seem to want for advocates. In January 2021, the San Francisco Unified School District moved to rename forty-four of its schools, including ones named for Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, Robert Louis Stevenson, Paul Revere, and Dianne Feinstein. It was objected that the reasons were often absurd—Paul Revere, for instance, was to be obliterated because he was connected to the Penobscot Expedition during the American Revolution, which was supposedly directed at dispossessing the Penobscot Indians from their lands but in fact had nothing to do with the Penobscot tribe. Critics asked why historians weren’t consulted, but the head of the renamings task force blew the objectors off with words Henry Ford would have applauded:
What would be the point? . . . Based on our criteria, it’s a very straightforward conversation. And so, no need to bring historians forward to say—they either pontificate and list a bunch of reasons why, or [say] they had great qualities. Neither are necessary in this discussion.
But the volume of ridicule this drew down on the heads of the San Francisco district board members in fact forced the renamers to retreat—at least for the moment. History 1, Henry Ford 0.
It’s naughty of me, I know, to revel in the unhallowed pleasure that this retreat afforded. But the ironic truth is that history education is not in a healthy state. I call it ironic because, at the same moment, more people are interested in history than ever before. Popular-history periodicals occupy whole sections of the magazine racks at Barnes & Noble, and while an outsize proportion of the magazines are about military history or historical scandals, it’s still history. There are twice as many local historical societies in the United States as there were fifty years ago; history nonfiction outsells fiction titles; and media moguls clamber over one another to produce history programs and documentaries. And it’s not just the United States, either. The show Heritage Minutes about Canadian history, produced by the private foundation Historic Canada, is so popular that, according to the Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan, students “often do school projects where they make their own minutes.”
But the ironic truth is that history education is not in a healthy state.
And yet, there is a widespread unease that we are losing our grasp on our history, and losing it especially in those educational institutions where, we assume, it should be thriving. Since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001, the time allotted to history instruction in American schools has been shrinking, sometimes to the vanishing point. In a 2018 survey conducted by the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship Foundation, only 13 percent of those polled knew when the U.S. Constitution was written, and 60 percent could not name which countries the United States fought against in World War II. Similarly, since 2011, the number of history majors in American colleges and universities has declined by a staggering 33 percent. According to Benjamin Schmidt of Northwestern University, who analyzed this decline for the American Historical Association, “Students and their parents seem to be thinking a lot more that they need to major in something practical,” and “history, humanities, English, and philosophy are not those practical majors.” I will be the first to admit that a degree in history will not guarantee an internship at Goldman Sachs, but the mental horizons of Goldman Sachs, I think, would suffer nothing but improvement from historical perspective.
Even where history seems to be taken seriously, a great deal of the seriousness dissipates in self-defeating directions. Last month, a senior school administrator in Texas advised teachers who were “going to keep books about the Holocaust in their classrooms” that “they must also stock material representing ‘opposing’ views or ‘other perspectives.’ ” The Holocaust? In some cases, history has faded into a kind of techno-narcissism, centering around various dna tests which will establish your ancestry (or at least the loci of your ancestors) and presumably give your ego a gentle shove upwards. In others, history has fallen prey to tribalism—by which I mean the narrowing of historical interest into the history of one’s identity group, most notoriously in the form of The 1619 Project. We live in what Daniel T. Rodgers has called “The Age of Fracture,” in which “shared traditions, values, and customs” are defended only by “conservative intellectuals who [have] not taken the libertarian turn, who still [imagine] society in organic terms.”
What we see, then, is a broadening of historical interest and, at the same time, a shallowing of that interest. It is not helped by the way historical study is conducted even in American higher education. In the strictest terms, there never really was any such thing as history in American higher education until the end of the nineteenth century. The principal reason was that there were not that many academic historians before 1925. History books were written by genteel literati—Cotton Mather on the founding of New England, David Ramsay and Mercy Otis Warren on the American Revolution, George Bancroft’s History of the United States, William Hickling Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico. Although the United States possessed an unusually large number of colleges in the nineteenth century, most of them were denominational outfits, with small numbers of students (four or five hundred) and small faculties (ten to fifteen) whose members evinced little in the way of specialized study. As late as the 1880s, there were only twenty academic positions in American higher education to which we could apply the label “historian.” When the American Historical Association was organized in 1884, its membership was barely more than two hundred. Up through that time, history writing in America had remained the preserve of those who could afford to do it on their own—which meant, for the most part, New England Brahmins like Bancroft, Francis Parkman, and Henry Adams.
What we see, then, is a broadening of historical interest and, at the same time, a shallowing of that interest.
All of that changed very quickly. History as a subject to be both studied for its own sake and taught as such by college-based faculty working in original source materials, and dignified by some form of earned academic credentials, came into its own in latter half of the nineteenth century, beginning in Germany. Professional academic specialization of this sort made its first American beachhead with the founding of Johns Hopkins University. By 1920, the American Historical Association had 2,500 members; today, the number is over 12,000. A downside, however, is that the migration of historians to academe has often entailed a sort of monastic withdrawal from any real interaction with society. Nothing, in fact, so marks the writing of history in American higher education today as the determination to replace any notion of upward and optimistic trends with various kinds of dreary historical apocalyptic—in just the same way we might expect medieval monks to deplore the grubbiness and aimlessness of modern commercial society.
I have been a history teacher for all of my professional career, which will soon complete its fourth decade. In a real sense, though, I have been a historian—or, to borrow a coinage George Will applies to baseball players, “baseball persons,” I have been a “history person”—most all my life, beginning on a sunny summer morning in the interval between first and second grade. I had not been an outstanding student in first grade, and to remedy my deficiencies, my grandmother had acquired a set of readers that she intended to deploy as an informal summer school. As I was sitting on the enclosed front porch, a story in one of these readers caught my attention; it was about King Robert of Sicily. I went into the living room, where my grandmother was always ensconced in a large velvet chair. “What is this?” I asked. “That’s history,” she replied. I have been hooked ever since. So, for me, the writing, teaching, and reading of history has not been a form of prophylactic to pour down students’ throats; it began as, and has remained, a love story, almost an instinct. Like an insurance adjuster who can never drive through a small town without the appraisal of every building he drives past popping into his mind unbidden, I can never look at people, places, and things without wondering about the past they came from.
This is why I sometimes call history “the second question.” The first question is the one we ask whenever we encounter something new and say, “What is that?” But once we have examined these new things and tested their edibility on the dog, as it were, a second line of questioning comes almost as naturally as the first one: Where did it come from? Did it arrive yesterday, or the day before? Was it someplace else or has it always been here? Can anyone remember how it was delivered? And as soon as we begin asking these secondary questions, we have really asked the basic question underlying all the history that has ever been written. Not that history is always the answer people have given. Sometimes, this second question—where did it come from?—has been answered by epic poetry, as in the Iliad and the Odyssey; sometimes, it has been answered by official annals and chronicles. It is not until we reach the Golden Age of Greece, in the fifth century B.C., and the writings of Herodotus, that we arrive at something we can really call history.
It is not until we reach the Golden Age of Greece that we arrive at something we can really call history.
That is because Herodotus undertook to write the history of the Greek resistance to Persia as something more than a mere list of battles won and lost. He wanted people to understand why the Greeks and Persians were so different, and he located that difference in the passionate Greek desire for eleutheria (“freedom,” or “liberty”). The Persian invasions were more than a military incident for Herodotus; they were a clash of civilizations. That injected two vital elements into Herodotus’s task: he had to research what the Greeks and Persians actually thought (and this inquiry he called a historia, from which our word history is derived) and then show how the difference in their thinking gave meaning to their conflict. So, history, in answering that second question, must do two things: it must investigate, and it must seek after meaning in what it investigates.
Of course, it is part of the human condition to disagree about meaning. St. Augustine had one view of the causes of the fall of Rome; Edward Gibbon had very much another. Johann Gottfried Herder thought that all history was the product of blood and soil; his fellow German, Karl Marx, thought it was the product of the struggle of classes. They disagreed about history because they disagreed about meaning. And that disagreement is what keeps anyone from claiming to have written the last word about history.
When history is done well and right, it becomes a useful instrument for disturbing easy conclusions. It reminds us, when we’re tempted to reach for a solution that seems perfect and ideal, that the same (or similar) solutions have been tried before, often with less-than-pleasant results. I do not believe that it’s the case that history repeats itself, i.e., that anyone who attempts to do A will always get B as a result. Human experience is too varied and complicated for A ever to recur as A; so, confidently warning or expecting that B is going to happen because something is happening now which looks like A is like expecting cherries to drop from orange trees because cherry trees and orange trees are both fruit trees. Democracies are not always tolerant, just as Athens was not tolerant of Socrates; monarchies are not always cruel. History does not repeat itself. But as Mark Twain is often said to have remarked, it does rhyme. You will not get oranges from cherry trees, but you will get fruit. Nor will you get more than fruit. One great comfort from the study of history is that there are very rarely new things in human nature. Don’t panic should be a primary lesson of any historical study.
When history is done well and right, it becomes a useful instrument for disturbing easy conclusions.
Another healthy lesson of good history comes from the sheer volume of it. In our effort to persuade people that historians have something to say worth hearing, we like to organize human history into patterns, and historians in democratic ages are particularly prone to inventing schemes of historical determinism that encourage us to see both past and present as the result of inexorable and inevitable trends. But I have never met a trend or a pattern. I have, however, met many people, and the variety of human experience should make us leery of attempts to squeeze history into the faceless channels of patterns and trends.
It is the weakness of progressive historians to invent futures toward which we should be striving, just as it is the weakness of postmodern historians to reduce history to a political exercise that serves power, and of the liberal historian to see history as the inevitable march of liberty. But as the venerable historian and New Zealander J. G. A. Pocock wrote, history serves to warn “the ruler on the one hand and the revolutionary on the other, that there is always more going on than either can understand or control.” History cannot be changed, but that does not mean that it was not changeable, and one must have a healthy respect for the contingency and spontaneity of human events. If Marshal Blücher had not reached the field of Waterloo, or if Charles Forbes had told John Wilkes Booth that he could not disturb Abraham Lincoln in the Presidential Box at Ford’s Theater, it is not difficult to imagine how different the world in which we live would be.
Perhaps history can do its best service by offering us moral models—examples of human behavior to embrace or to avoid—and the difficult truth that both types can sometimes inhabit the same human skin. If, in the process, we concentrate on examples of the good, the true, and the beautiful, we will, if nothing else, make ourselves better people. “That man,” Samuel Johnson once quipped, “is little to be envied whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plains of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona!” Good history points us to how things should be; it does not wallow in fashionable despair or turn its characters into cartoons; its practitioners are frank and sympathetic, and they resist the modern retreat to irony and the reflexive sneer.
If we concentrate on examples of the good, the true, and the beautiful, we will, if nothing else, make ourselves better people.
But even in reflecting on characters who were not always brave or beautiful, we can still find that which holds off dissolution and despair. The necessity of writing about difficult or even horrendous historical agents is as inescapable as the occurrence of difficult and horrendous agents in real time, and recording these histories carries with it the danger that entering into the depths of such a personality or phenomenon might dull the edge of human judgment. But there is no way to pretend that their roles in the past can somehow be avoided, even in those cases—Auschwitz, Stalin—where there is hardly a glimmer of right. But in so much of human experience, a determined discernment will allow us to separate the wheat from the chaff, to find in Winston Churchill someone who was utterly out of step on the Dardanelles, Edward VIII, and colonialism, yet who was right on a very big thing, which was Nazi totalitarianism, or to find in Ulysses S. Grant a man casually issuing anti-Semitic orders in 1862 but smashing the Ku Klux Klan in 1871. Plutarch saw Alexander the Great as a mixture of generosity and childish impulse, yet Alexander was still for him the soldier who praised Aristotle, who wished he was more like Diogenes, and who prized above all his copy of the Iliad on campaign. Plutarch’s Cicero could be both statesmanlike and a political blowhard, but even at the end, Augustus Caesar, who as part of the Second Triumvirate had consented to his execution, could describe him to his grand-nephew thus: “A learned man, my boy, a learned man and a lover of his country.” Good history does not make easy leaps; it finds virtue even amid chaos and sin.
History is an art. That does not mean that it operates apart from falsifiability. What it does mean is that, like art, history should be life-affirming. We should be able to say without embarrassment, for instance, that the American centuries have comprised one of the most remarkable epochs in human history. We should be able to draw the amazing contrast between the world that an American child in 1820 would have lived in—a world that was still almost medieval, where households had to haul fifty gallons of water a day for washing, boiling, and rinsing and burn fifty pounds of wood or coal per day through the winter just to stay alive—and our own. In 1880, not a single American house was wired for electricity, but nearly 100 percent of them were by 1940, and 94 percent had water piped in and sewage piped out. In 1900, 37 percent of all deaths were due to infectious diseases; by 1955, death from infectious diseases had shrunk to 5 percent. In 1900, all the hard-surface roads in the United States would have gotten you no farther than from New York City to Boston; today the national highway system includes 160,000 miles of hard-surface roadway. No history can ignore how easy our lives have been made in comparison to the lives of our great-grandparents.
Good history does not make easy leaps; it finds virtue even amid chaos and sin.
Bear in mind, though, that we developed all of this right beside Jim Crow, the limitation of the franchise to males (mostly white), and the predations of the robber barons, among other things. Finding meaning in history does not compel you to tell a story all beaming with goodness and light, or to play constant games of beggar-my-neighbor by telling one full of misery and oppression. We should not, like the proverbial drunken man who has fallen off one side of the horse, remount only to fall off the other.
We do not need to make the claim of perfection in how we teach and write our history, but we do need to reflect on the extraordinary capacity for renewal that has made Americans what we are. Good history-writing finds, side-by-side, generosity and courage and tragedy, and it never allows us to indulge meanness or contempt.
I have tried to look for meaning in history, since that is what makes historical inquiry more than mere narcissism (or worse). But not just any meaning. History must avoid the entanglement of lethal meanings, because history has also been written by despots and tyrants, to make themselves respectable. There have been moments when the writing of history has been a worship of hatred, and its aim not so much to rewrite as to blot out. That impulse, of course, poses a hazard for more than just history writing; any of the arts can be prostituted by power. But for Americans in particular, there is a need to pay very close attention to writing good history, because bad or careless or malevolent history creates a direct challenge to the whole notion of our civic order. Americans are a people bound and identified by an allegiance to the principles of republican democracy as set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. We hang together by what we attest to: the pillars of constitutionalism; the natural law that both empowers and constrains a democratic economy; the religion that builds unity and community in American public life; the equality that every citizen enjoys as a citizen—not a social, economic, or racial actor, but a citizen. To borrow from Longfellow:
Ye who love as nation’s legends,
Love the ballads of a people,
That like voices from afar off
Call to us to pause and listen,
Speak in tones so plain and childlike,
Scarcely can the ear distinguish
Whether they are sung or spoken[,]
cannot be indifferent to the fate of our history.
If we allow ourselves to become indifferent to the history of that republicanism, then we risk a failure of civic education and self-knowledge at every level. Or, put more simply, if we do not tend to our history, the flame of our civil community will gutter out. If we wish to imperil the American experiment, we can find few more direct and sinister paths to that peril than by forgetting, obscuring, or demeaning who we were, for that will tell the story of who we are, and who we will become.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 1, on page 18
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