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Finding Who and Where We Are

Can American History Tell Us?

By Paul Gagnon

A few years ago, David Donald, professor of American history at Harvard, stirred up a little storm on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times by wondering whether his courses were still worth teaching. Students expected, he said, to understand how their American past related to the present and the future. But teaching them the truth as he saw it would only reveal his own sense of "the irrelevance of history and of the bleakness of the new era we are entering." We were no longer "people of plenty," in David Potter's phrase, airily confident of solving every problem by simply cooking up a bigger economic pie. As resources dwindled, the lessons of "incurable optimism" students learned from the American past were "not merely irrelevant but dangerous." Was it not his duty, Donald asked, "to disenthrall them from the spell of history, to help them see the irrelevance of the past?"

Professor Donald was worried for the wrong reasons. American history is not irrelevant or misleading because it is optimistic. Does one nourish optimism by studying the slave trade, the Civil War, the Depression, or Vietnam? It is, however, irrelevant and useless to many people because it is drastically insufficient on its own. We have taken to teaching it by itself, as though it were rooted nowhere, as though the "American past," in which David Donald's students hoped to find understanding of themselves, reached back only to Columbus rather than to Noah and before.

The plain fact is that American history is not intelligible, and we are not intelligible to ourselves without a prior grasp of the life and ideas of the Ancient World, Judaism and Christianity, of Islam and Christendom in the Middle Ages, of Feudalism, of the Renaissance and Reformation, of the English Revolution and the Enlightenment. Contrary to the image we often formed in school, the pilgrims did not sail into view out of the void, their minds as blank as the Atlantic sky, ready to build a new world out of nothing but whatever they could find lying about the ground in eastern Massachusetts. They and all the others who landed in the Western hemisphere were shaped and scarred by tens of centuries of social, literary, political, and religious experience.

Even to begin to comprehend them, and through them to measure ourselves and our institutions, American history is not nearly enough. Ideas of human equality and dignity, of individual moral responsibility, are based on the ancient texts of Judaism and Christianity—as are the debates between individualism and collectivism, between reformism and resignation, between the spiritual and the material. The glory and failure of democracy emerge with the Athenians. Our constitutional ideas go back to Rome, are worked out during the feudal era, find full expression in 17th-century England. Whence the notions of civil rights, of religious tolerance or intolerance, of economic and social justice, of free enterprise and free inquiry, of academic freedom and cultural innovation, of faith in science, reason, and progress? And what battles were won and lost, and why won and why lost, over them all? Those who sailed westward to land here did not in fact try to build a new world at all but struggled to rebuild what they treasured most of their old world in a new setting.

In this perspective, ours is one of the great, multifarious adventures of human history. It can fascinate the young, who need and want to find themselves in time and place, to see where their life histories join the history of the race. Their "American past?" Their blood ran in men and women working the soil of Burgundy and the Ukraine, of China and Africa, before the Normans set out on their conquests. Our ideas of good, evil, honor, and shame weighed upon Jews and Greeks and Christians before the Middle Ages. But we do not want to look back. We do not even look south of the Rio Grande. We prefer the myth of the New World, the U.S. world innocent of the stains of the old or of the rest of the hemisphere, somehow outside of the ordinary human condition. It is our own special sin of pride, shutting out the possibility of comprehending ourselves, much less of understanding others. Its educational consequence has been the shrinking of American history to mean only U.S. history and the nearly total abandonment of Mediterranean, European, and British history, the study of that Western civilization whose ever-shifting ideas and works, both beneficent and destructive, have made us what we are.

What remains in most "American" history courses, though not always so misleading as David Donald feared, is not nearly enough to tell us who we are, where we came from, why we think the way we do, why others may think differently, and how the world got itself into the present situation. As George Steiner once put it, what passes for education in this country amounts to planned amnesia. Historical studies, apart from whatever can be called the required year of U.S. history—sometimes no more than a few "projects"—have no fixed place in the curriculum. The recent vogue of Global Studies, sometimes in the guise of World History, is of no help, or worse. As ill-defined and superficial as U.S. history is parochial and fragmentary, World History pretends that students can compare their society with others before they know very much about themselves.

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We have always talked a great deal about education for citizenship. But we have usually been content with promoting right attitudes, "doing values" out of current events or case studies, rarely out of any systematic historical knowledge of what Western peoples have actually done in the past, so that students might reflect for themselves upon what has been good or bad, foolish or wise. Even less do we offer them the history of ideas, of competing social and political philosophies, out of which the free citizen could work at his own perceptions. We seem unwilling to lay the record open.

Many of our freshmen arrive at college, after 12 years of school (presumably in the "college track"), knowing nothing of the pre-Plymouth past, including the Bible! All too frequently, they have not heard of Aristotle, Aquinas, Luther, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, Burke, or Marx. They often know nothing of the deterioration of Athens and Rome, of Czarist Russia and Weimar Germany, and next to nothing of the history of science, technology, industry, of capitalism and socialism, of fascism and Stalinism, of how we found ourselves in two world wars, or even in Vietnam. They have been asked to read very little and to reflect hardly at all. At 18 or 19, they are unarmed for public discourse, their great energy and idealism at the mercy of pop politics and the seven o'clock news.

Most college curricula offer no rescue. In the modern American university, nobody takes responsibility for what is taught. Faculty members avoid prescribing any subject matter in particular. The participatory democracy of curriculum making somehow always manages to end at the same point: Anything must be declared to be as good as anything else, lest the balance of departmental enrollments (and faculty positions) be disturbed. The arguments are not, of course, so crudely put. We academicians are too skilled at spinning high reasons for low acts. Letting students ignore the events and ideas that have shaped them and their world is called freedom of choice. Amnesia becomes liberation. The notion that freedom can proceed only out of requirements is too deep for us, especially at budget time, and as enrollments fall.

If American education is ever to be made democratic, so that, as deTocqueville said, democracy may be educated, nothing will be more crucial than a common, sequential study of history throughout the elementary and secondary years. Only history, and particularly the history of Western civilization, can begin to help us find who we are and what choices we may have before us. But history is also, in Clifton Fadiman's words, a generative subject, upon which the coherence and usefulness of many other subjects depend. It is essential to a serviceable view of art, architecture, drama, and literature, of the evolution of the natural sciences and social sciences. These are high claims for the uses of history, but they are justified by the aesthetic and intellectual experiences of countless Westerners, stretching back through time from Churchill to Thucydides. And such claims must be kept uppermost in mind, for otherwise it would prove impossible to decide what is most worth teaching out of the enormous mass of historical data facing us.

In making up our syllabi, we have to be brave enough to declare that some things are indeed more important than others. Brave, because we know ahead of time that our selection will be imperfect, subject to attack. We have no choice; time is limited. So we must pose the question and do our best to answer it honestly: What has made us what we are? What have been the truly shaping experiences for the Western, the American mind? It is not a short list: the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome, Judaism and Christianity, Feudalism and the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation, exploration and capitalism, absolute monarchy, the English Revolution, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, Industrial Revolution, Social Revolution, Imperialism, total war, and what we must now call the shrinking planet! Something substantial of all of these great experiences must be taught. Not only a few, but all, or the complexity will be missed and the tremendous drama of our own time will go unperceived.

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It will be objected that a focus on the history of Western civilization is not sufficiently "multicultural," that it leaves out much of the past for native Americans, Afro-Americans, and Asian-Americans. The first response is that French public schools, for example, offer seven post-elementary years of history, geography, and culture, amply covering every corner of the world. We can learn from our old sister republic, which now graduates as high a proportion of young people from high school as we do—but all from a common track of academic subjects, heavy in history and the humanities. It is their belated way of responding to deTocqueville's plea that equality be ennobled by preparing all for citizenship and personal cultivation, above and beyond any strictly vocational expectations. Shall we strive for less?

The second, more fundamental, response arises from the nature and needs of any society. Whether by past force or recent choice, the people of non-Western origin living in this country are now part of a community whose ideas and institutions, for good and ill, grow out of the Western experience. Whether they seek to enjoy and enrich Western society, or to exploit or even overthrow it, all citizens need to know much more about it than most do now. And there is little hope that mainstream Americans can come to sympathetic understanding of strangers in their midst, or of foreign lands and cultures, without first facing up to the historical record of the best and worst in themselves. It simply makes no sense in our schools to start anywhere but with the Western experience, and to start from the beginning. As Rousseau might say, we all now owe each other a close knowledge of it, as partners in a social contract.

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Educating free citizens is the most demanding of all forms of schooling. Freedom requires a level of personal autonomy and dignity that is possible only when mind and spirit are richly nourished, nourished beyond anything needed for the highest careers or professions. Free people need heartening lives after work and beyond politics. Perhaps the greatest contribution of history to personal liberation is its revelation of the countless alternatives people have found for personal fulfillment and social well-being. The history of Western civilization offers an immense range of ideas and ideologies, of ways to organize political, economic, and social life, of paths to personal integrity or salvation, of modes of behavior, of styles of cultural and intellectual creation. Such a sweep of alternatives frees the student from the cacophony of prevailing fads and orthodoxies, from media hype, and from the grip of present-mindedness dear to special pleaders and profit seekers. The personal dignity of free choice can proceed only out of knowledge of the alternatives possible in private and public life, knowledge that only history can provide.

As the Athenians said, whatever is vital to a full personal life is thereby conducive to active, effective citizenship. The politics of self-government is the most difficult of all, the most decisive for the destiny of most people. What can the study of history contribute? For one thing, the habit of thinking critically. History insists upon the difference between fact and wish. Although the same evidence may mean different things to different observers, the evidence cannot be wished away. It is there to be wrestled with, real and immovable, complicating our dreams and preferences. History constantly forces us back to reality, making us skeptical of quick judgments, cheap and easy answers, resounding slogans. It is the natural enemy of frivolity and abstraction, pushing us to demand evidence, to decide for ourselves the meanings of events, the sense or nonsense of ideas and men, to look behind words to reality.

How do citizens "grow up" and comprehend reality in the human condition? No sensible teacher would claim that maturity is the product of schooling alone. We learn most, of course, from direct experience, in the family, at work, in the street, in struggle, sickness, and loss. But we cannot directly experience everything of significance to the life and work of mankind. Schooling must extend our experience in many directions. Otherwise, we are prisoners of our milieu, ignorant (either in bliss or despair) of untold dimensions and possibilities.

History, together with literature and the arts, extends our experience. To those who decry schooling and book learning as merely secondhand and "unreal," we must respond in two ways. First, whatever lies beyond our immediate experience is no less real for all that. Even a secondhand notion of reality is better than ignorance. Further, it is universally evident that direct and secondhand experience work upon each other to clarify and deepen both. The more we know of life, the better we understand history. The more we know of history, the better we understand life.

As extension of experience, history lets us look at other people, places, and times—for perspective, the ability to compare ourselves and our problems with them and theirs. Perspective nourishes patience, sympathy, courage—antidotes to anger, envy, and self-pity. Without perspective, how shall democratic citizens respond to leaders who must, in deTocqueville's words, "stand apart from the tendencies of the age and present men, when necessary, with alternative views and values?" All—not only the few—in a democracy must have wisdom about human nature, about people's needs and desires as these are revealed by philosophy and history.

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Wisdom is a big word. In what sense is it nurtured by history? Can the study of history through the secondary school actually develop qualities of mind that approach political wisdom? Let us take a few examples. The young surely can learn history's great law of consequence: Whatever is done, or not done, will have its price and will be paid for, perhaps twice over, by somebody (often innocent), sooner or later. That lesson from Thucydides, or from the origins of the War of 1914-18, or from the history of slavery in the U.S., is, moreover, frequently reinforced by hard experience in the playground or on the street.

History also suggests reasonable expectations of life and politics. It repeatedly teaches a dual lesson: the everlasting hardness of most human enterprise and the ever-recurring margin of chance to make things better, just enough to impose on us the duty to persevere. History rejects optimism and pessimism, refuses us the comforts of easy idealism and easy cynicism. Americans have often rushed from liberal crusades to the most churlish, self-centered hopelessness, prey to the disillusion that always follows upon illusion over what it is reasonable to expect from life—the mark of a people unschooled in history.

History proposes a sensible definition of heritage as both the good and the bad imposed upon us by the past. Western civilization is not treasure alone but a mixed legacy of resources and limitations we must understand if our choices are to be made realistically. Heritage is what we have to work with, no more and no less. If we ignore it, we risk the future. If we fail to recognize the origins, the costs and complexity, the fragility of our heritage, we shall—like Ortega's mass man—assume that everything good from the past is somehow given, permanent, free for our instant gratification, requiring nothing in return from us.

History offers no blueprint, no specific solution to particular political problems. One of its lessons is the folly of expecting such. The essence of history is change. Still, it reveals much about human behavior, its possibilities and its limits, what may be expected under certain conditions, the danger signs to be noted, the aspirations to be taken into account, the effects of pride and ideology, the fruits of endurance and attention to detail. It suggests the insights sometimes gained out of failure and the dangerous temptations of success. Again, the lessons do not tell what is certain, only what may sensibly be expected.

In sum, historical study offers the citizen the perspective, the sense of reality and proportion that is the first mark of political wisdom. As James Howard and Thomas Mendenhall say in Making History Come Alive, the student comes to see that not every difficulty is a problem and not every problem is a crisis. Restraint and good judgment are the fruits of perspective. Whether difficulty, problem, or crisis, all have their dimensions in time. Too long have Americans debated political choice as though nothing had ever happened before, as though the past had left behind neither lessons nor limits for our choices. The saddest proof that we have failed to take seriously deTocqueville's pleas to educate democracy is our casual, chaotic, and minimal schooling in history.

The study of history does not guarantee either wisdom or courage. There are too many ways to be unwise or defeatist. But its perspectives do inoculate us against some of the lower orders of stupidity, those states of mindless illusion and disillusion that discourage us from working hard at learning anything at all. No other study comes so close to placing us in reality, but it must reach far beyond Professor Donald's history of the United States. We cannot know ourselves without knowing the entire Western past. We cannot know others, or our situation and theirs, without knowing the history of the rest of the world. As long as we deny ourselves a usable past, we shall have nothing to measure ourselves by. Until history, both Western and non-Western, takes its full role in American schools, we shall remain captive to amnesia, disoriented, often depressed and, possibly, as David Donald said, dangerous.


Paul Gagnon was professor of modern European history at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and a member of the Paideia Group when he wrote this article for American Educator in spring 1985.