Whose History?

Meaningful scholarship breeds careful, sensitive scholars —and the world is far too complex to give American students an easy pass.

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Image via: The New York Times

In an important op-ed on teaching history in America, James R. Grossman —Executive Director of the American History Association— discusses how curricula in the United States has, and will continue, to change over time. Grossman writes:

This fall, whites will constitute a minority of public-school students in the United States. “Our” past is now more diverse than we once thought, whether we like it or not.

This stat might shock some, but Grossman’s intention is to widen the perspective of the American public. He asserts that “history” as we know it today is irreducible to the simple scripts of American exceptionalism or the “American Dream”, and that the teaching of history ought not be attacked as it tackles the nuance of accumulated “facts” over time.

…Fewer and fewer college professors are teaching the United States history our grandparents learned — memorizing a litany of names, dates and facts — and this upsets some people. “College-level work” now requires attention to context, and change over time; includes greater use of primary sources; and reassesses traditional narratives. This is work that requires and builds empathy, an essential aspect of historical thinking.

This, too, is an established and evolving perspective, but one that armchair critics of the College Board’s new curriculum framework —to whom the op-ed is targeted— seem to have forgotten. In 1960, E.H. Carr delivered a series of lectures titled, “What Is History?” and tackled the tricky (and trying) relationship between historians and their facts.

It used to be said that facts speak for themselves. This is, of course, untrue. The facts speak only when the historian calls on them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and it what order or context.

This does not condemn history as listless, so much as it demands a historian’s carefully justification for the conclusions he or she might assert. More to the point, Grossman proposes that the field of history is necessarily revisionist —not for the purpose of politics or privilege, but those of posterity and practice. Meaningful scholarship breeds careful, sensitive scholars —and the world is far too complex to give American students an easy pass.

How Short History

An interesting Atlantic piece published today analyzes the failure of then-British Foreign Secretary Selwyn Loyd to foresee the failings of British “empire” and the African independence movement throughout the 1960s and 70s. More important than the colloquial and racial undertones in Loyd’s analysis, is a lesson of punditry, political-prognostication and the bias of the present. In the words of the author:

“Within only a few years of this memo, both Britain and the Africa were dramatically changed, and the assumptions Loyd shared with the power structure around him had become obsolete. History can shock itself like this. Just a few years from now, the idea that China and India would become superpowers — or that multilateral institutions like NATO or the UN would maintain their primacy, or that most of Europe would remain pluralistic and democratic — could similarly read like quaint reminders of the arrogance or credulousness of an earlier age. And by 2060, they could seem like hopelessly deluded relics of a vanished world.”