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June 12, 2008

the public and history

Here are two rival stories about the role of American history today:

1. American history used to be told in an elitist fashion. It was all about the intentions and actions of a few powerful individuals, almost all white men. Ordinary people (including ordinary white men) were marginal or invisible. Historical writing failed to give citizens a sense of agency, because all the power and influence seemed to belong to national elites. Then social historians began to democratize the past and bring it closer to students' and readers' experience by uncovering the daily world of farmers, soldiers, mothers, slaves, and others, in their specific circumstances. All kinds of people could find themselves in the past.

2. Many Americans are fascinated by great events and leaders. There is a huge audience for biographies, especially of presidents and generals. Millions visit battlefields and the historic homes of leaders; they want to know where Lincoln spoke or Stonewall stood. But historians write about minute details of social life, often using grand abstractions, like race and gender. They push schools and public facilities to emphasize traditionally oppressed people. For example, Chris Mackowski and Kristopher White noted at their talk on Tuesday that the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County Battlefield site has a sign about slave cabins even though there are no extant cabins or other remains to be seen there. Mackowski and White argued that this sort of display is alienating. People want to learn about Robert E. Lee, not about social history. Experts are responsible for the dominance of social history, which explains why students don't major in history and why young people don't know historical facts. (For instance, most 17-year-old Americans cannot place the Civil War in the period 1850-1900.)

I'm not sure what to think, myself. I will note that young people do study American history (it's a requirement virtually everywhere), and they still recall a fairly traditional curriculum. We find that the three themes that young Americans remember studying most are: the Constitution and the American political system, "great American heroes and the virtues of the American system of government," and wars and battles. Only 9 percent of young people recall any emphasis on "racism and other forms of injustice" in their social studies classes. Therefore, I can't buy the argument that because young people are forced to study depressing facts about social life, they don't know exciting facts about heroes. But that still leaves a deep question about what we ought to know.

June 12, 2008 3:45 PM | category: none


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