History, American Democracy, and the AP Test Controversy

Wilfred McClay
Senior Editor, Claremont Review of Books

Wilfred McClayWilfred M. McClay is the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Professor in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma. He has also taught at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Tulane University, Georgetown University, and Pepperdine University, and he served for eleven years as a member of the National Council on the Humanities. His books include The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America, The Student’s Guide to U.S. History, and Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past. He received his Ph.D. in history from Johns Hopkins University.

The following is adapted from a talk delivered on July 10, 2015, at Hillsdale College’s Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship in Washington, D.C., as part of the AWC Family Foundation Lecture Series.

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; nor is it the mastery of facts, although a solid grasp of the factual basis of American history is surely essential; nor is it 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, a way in which the young are introduced to the fullness of their political and cultural inheritance as Americans, enabling 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. 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.

This is especially true in a democracy. The American Founders, and perhaps most notably Thomas Jefferson, well understood that no popular government could flourish for long without an educated citizenry—one that understood the special virtues of republican self-government, and the civic and moral duty of citizens to uphold and guard it. As the historian Donald Kagan has put it, “Democracy requires a patriotic education.” It does so for two reasons: first, because its success depends upon the active participation of its citizens in their own governance; and second, because without such an education, there would be no way to persuade free individuals of the need to make sacrifices for the sake of the greater good. We now seem to think we can dispense with such an education, and in fact are likely to disparage it reflexively, labelling it a form of propaganda or jingoism. But Kagan begs to differ with that assessment. “The encouragement of patriotism,” he laments, “is no longer a part of our public educational system, and the cost of that omission has made itself felt” in a way that “would have alarmed and dismayed the founders of our country.”

Why has this happened? Some part of the responsibility lies within the field of history itself. 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. Students of academic life express this decline quantitatively, citing shrinking enrollments in history courses, the disappearance of required history courses in university curricula, and the loss of full-time faculty positions in history-related areas. But it goes much deeper than that. One 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. Or perhaps history is useless because the road we have traveled to date offers us only a parade of negative examples of oppression, error, and obsolescence—an endless tableau of Confederate flags, so to speak—proof positive that the past has no heroes worthy of our admiration, and no lessons applicable to our unprecedented age.

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.