Teachers Haven’t Failed Students—Historians Have

Jul 10, 2011 by



She contained my wayward prose, to be sure, but she also fought me every step of the way on the virtues of consumer culture and the politics of populism with substantive queries that made her sound like a colleague. Unlike the overwhelming majority of those colleagues, at least the Americanists among them, I’m in favor of the former and skeptical of the latter.

I’m here to report on a cognate disagreement she had with me. This one was about the historical consciousness of the American people—or the lack thereof. It speaks directly to my differences with our discipline, and, more to the point, it speaks directly to the questions raised by a recent report on the historiographical proficiency of twelfth graders. And these are of course the questions raised by the New York Times in its last Week in Review, asking whether its most studious readers—the people who bother with the editorial pages—could pass the test given to twelfth graders and reported as a National Assessment of Education Progress. The headline of the article could have been ripped from the title of Rick Shenkman’s book: “How Stupid Are We?”

Here’s what I wrote in the first chapter of my new book:

“And then I thought, we Americans, who are said to lack a sense of history, we actually excel at understanding backward because historical narratives are what constitute us as a people and a nation: to be an American is to argue about what it means to be an American, and the only way to get into the argument is to think historically, to figure out what “original intent,” or slavery and civil war—or corporate “persons” entitled to free speech—can mean in the present, where we live forward.

“And then, finally, I thought, OK, but maybe this historiographical excellence of ours has become a curse. So I asked myself one more question: does our eagerness to understand backward sometimes make us prisoners of the past?”

Here’s how the copy-editor responded:

Au: This doesn’t ring quite true. I think it’s a rarefied few who are that contemplative or frankly even knowledgeable about original intent, etc. I think when it comes to the nuts and bolts of our early history most Americans are like the kids at the beginning of Mad Max with their shred of flag and jumbled pledge of allegiance. I agree that this historical perspective is integral to understanding if you’re motivated to understand, but I don’t buy that most Americans struggle with original intent, etc. Recast with a narrower net?


I’d bet that 90 percent of professional historians agree with her, and that a similar percentage of the intellectuals at large would, too. They would agree that Americans have excelled at escaping the past rather than grasping it as the condition of innovation in the present. And maybe they’re right.

Starting over, self-fashioning, heading for the territory, exporting the social question, put it any way you want, that frontier where the Old World doesn’t matter has always beckoned—it’s always postponed the day of reckoning with realities determined by History (by “civilization,” in Huck’s terms). You don’t need Frederick Jackson Turner to make the case or fill out the footnote, or to accuse Americans of an “exceptionalist” faith in their exemption from historical laws of motion. Herman Melville put it this way in Clarel, the epic poem of 1874: “The vast reserves, the untried fields,/ These shall long keep off and delay the class war,/ The rich and poor man fray.”

via Because the Past is the Present, and the Future too..

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