History, American Democracy, and the AP Test Controversy

Wilfred McClay
Author, Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story

Wilfred McClayWilfred M. McClay is the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Professor in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma. He received his Ph.D. in history from Johns Hopkins University. 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 Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story.

This condition has profound implications for the academy and for our society. The loss of history, not only as a body of knowledge but as a distinctive way of thinking about the world, will have—is already having—dire effects on the quality of our civic life. It would be ironic if the great advances in professional historical writing over the past century or so—advances that have, through the exploitation of fresh data and new techniques of analysis, opened to us a more expansive but also more minute understanding of countless formerly hidden aspects of the past—were to come at the expense of a more general audience for history, and for its valuable effects upon our public life. It would be ironic, but it appears to be true.

As historian Thomas Bender laments in a recent article, gloomily entitled “How Historians Lost Their Public,” the growth of knowledge in ever more numerous and tightly focused subspecialties of history has resulted in the displacement of the old-fashioned survey course in colleges and universities, with its expansive scale, synthesizing panache, and virtuoso pedagogues. Bender is loath to give up any of the advances made by the profession’s ever more intensive form of historical cultivation, but he concedes that something has gone wrong: historians have lost the ability to speak to, and to command the attention of, a larger audience, even a well-educated one, that is seeking more general meanings in the study of the past. They have indeed lost their public. They have had to cede much of their field to journalists, who know how to write much more accessibly and are willing to explore themes—journalist Tom Brokaw’s celebration of “the greatest generation,” for example—that strike a chord with the public, but which professional historians have been trained to disdain as ethnocentric, triumphalist, or uncritically celebratory. Professional historians complain that such material lacks nuance, rigor, and is prone to re-package the past in terms that readers will find pleasing to their preconceptions. They may be right. But such works are at least being read by a public that is still hungry for history. The loss of a public for history may be due to the loss of a history for the public.

Instead, it seems that professional historiography is produced mainly for the consumption of other professional historians. Indeed, the very proposition that professional historiography should concern itself in fundamental ways with civic needs is one that most of the profession would find suspect, and a great many would find downright unacceptable—a transgression against free and untrammeled scholarly inquiry. Such resistance is understandable, since conscientious historians need to be constantly wary of the threat to their scholarly integrity posed by intrusive officials and unfriendly political agendas.

There can be no doubt that the professionalization of the field has brought a remarkable degree of protection for disciplinary rigor and intellectual freedom in the framing and pursuit of historical questions. But must abandonment of a sense of civic responsibility come in tandem with the professionalization of the field? This presents a problem, not only for the public, but for the study of history itself, if it can no longer generate a plausible organizing principle from its own resources.