American History Hijacked by Ideology – The Dangers and the Cure

Jeff Bridges -- The Giver -- 2014 Movie2014 movie:  Jeff Bridges is “The Giver” of historical truth in a sterilized dystopian society
(photo credit)

Intro by Jeff Rutherford

As I have lately been immersed in topics of history, I was especially interested in the most recent issue of Imprimis published by Hillsdale College.  Entitled “History, American Democracy, and the AP Test Controversy,” it’s from a speech by University of Oklahoma History Professor Wilfred M. McClay on July 10, 2015.  The full 3500-word Imprimis transcript delves deeper into the troubles hitting the field of historical research and education — as indicated by the title — including the decline in popularity of books by historians, and the recent controversial changes to the Advanced Placement U.S. History (APUSH) test, which is closely related to the conservative movement’s concerns with Common Core education mandates. Click the above link to read the entire Imprimis article.

Here, I have excerpted less than 1/3 of the transcript, sticking to the more central passages about the role the study of history plays in a free society, and the dangers we face by losing sight of that role.

Wilfred M McClay photo(photo credit)

Speech by Dr. Wilfred M. McClay, 10 July 2015

Historical study and history education in the United States today are in a bad way, and the causes are linked. In both cases, we have lost our way by forgetting that the study of the past makes the most sense when it is connected to a larger, public purpose, and is thereby woven into the warp and woof of our common life. The chief purpose of a high school education in American history is not

  • the development of critical thinking and analytic skills, although the acquisition of such skills is vitally important;
  • the mastery of facts, although a solid grasp of the factual basis of American history is surely essential;
  • the acquisition of a genuine historical consciousness, although that certainly would be nice to have too, particularly under the present circumstances in which historical memory seems to run at about 15 minutes, especially with the young.

No, the chief purpose of a high school education in American history is as a rite of civic membership, an act of inculcation and formation.  It is how the young are introduced to the fullness of their political and cultural inheritance as Americans.  It enables them to become literate and conversant in its many features, and to appropriate fully all that it has to offer them, both its privileges and its burdens. It enables them to make its stories theirs, and thereby let them come into possession of the common treasure of its cultural life.

In that sense, the study of history is different from any other academic subject. It is not merely a body of knowledge. It also ushers the individual person into membership in a common world, and situates them in space and time.

…A century ago, professional historians still imagined that their discipline could be a science, able to explain the doings of nations and peoples with the dispassionate precision of a natural science. But that confidence is long gone. Like so many of the disciplines making up the humanities, history has for some time now been experiencing a slow dissolution, a decline that now may be approaching a critical juncture.  …[Among trained historians, o]ne senses a loss of self-confidence, a fear that the study of the past may no longer be something valuable or important, a suspicion that history lacks the capacity to be a coherent and truth-seeking enterprise. Instead, it is likely to be seen as a relativistic funhouse, in which all narratives are arbitrary and all interpretations are equally valid.

…This loss of faith in the central importance of history pervades all of American society. Gone are the days when widely shared understandings of the past provided a sense of civilizational unity and forward propulsion. Instead, argues historian Daniel T. Rodgers, we live in a querulous “age of fracture,” in which all narratives are contested, in which the various disciplines no longer take a broad view of the human condition, rarely speak to one another, and have abandoned the search for common ground in favor of focusing on the concerns and perspectives of ever more minute subdisciplines, ever smaller groups, ever more finely tuned and exclusive categories of experience. This is not just a feature of academic life, but seems to be an emerging feature of American life more broadly. The broad and embracing commonalities of old are no more, undermined and fragmented into a thousand subcultural pieces.

…We often speak these days of global citizenship, and see it as a form of advanced consciousness to which our students should be made to aspire. But global citizenship is, at best, a fanciful phrase, abstract and remote, unspecific in its requirements. Actual citizenship is different, since it entails membership in the life of a particular place. It means having a home address. Education does young people no favors when it fails to equip them for that kind of membership. Nor does it do the rest of us any favors. We will not be able to uphold our democracy unless we know our great stories, our national narratives, and the admirable deeds of our great men and women.

…We need an approach to the past that conduces most fully to a healthy foundation for our common, civic existence – one that stoutly resists the culture of fracture rather than acceding to it. This is not a call for an uncritical, triumphalist account of the past. Such an account would not be an advance, since it would fail to give us the tools of intelligent and morally serious self-criticism. But neither does an approach that, in the name of post-national anti-triumphalism, reduces American history to the aggregate sum of a multitude of past injustices and oppressions, without bringing those offenses into their proper context – without showing them as elements in the great story of a longer American effort to live up to lofty and demanding ideals. Both of these caricatures fail to do what we have a right to expect our history to do.

…Historians will find their public again when the public can find its historians – historians who keep in mind that the writing of our history is to be for that public:

  • Not for in the sense of fulfilling its expectations, flattering its prejudices, and disguising its faults.
  • Not for in the sense of underwriting a particular political agenda.
  • But for in the sense of being addressed to them, as one people with a common past and a common future, affirmative of what is noblest and best in them, and directed towards their fulfillment.

History has been a principal victim of the age of fracture. But it can also be a powerful antidote to it.

Dr. McClay Prescription for America


About Necessary and Proper

Jeff believes in the Individual's ability to excel when liberty and freedom of choice are protected. Also believes in the Community's ability to take care of the vast majority of its own issues and needs when the federal government leaves the Community's resources and sphere of control alone. State and local choice produce better results than centralized federal control.
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