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.

Consider in this regard our startling incapacity to design and construct public monuments and memorials. Such edifices are the classic places where history and public life intersect, and they are by their very nature meant to be rallying points for the public consciousness, for affirmation of the body politic, past, present, and future, in the act of recollection and commemoration, and recommitment to the future. There is a profundity, approaching the sacramental, in the atmosphere created by such places, as they draw together generations of the living, the dead, and those yet unborn in a bond of mutuality and solidarity. The great structures and statuary that populate the National Mall in Washington, D.C.—such as the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument—or the solemnity of Arlington National Cemetery, do this superbly well. There is a sense, too, that cemeteries honoring fallen soldiers of the Confederacy somehow deserve our general respect, even if the cause for which they fell does not. But these structures were a product of an earlier time, when the national consensus was stronger. Today, as illustrated by the endless deadlock over the design and erection of a memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower in Washington, a drama that has become a fiasco, we seem to find the construction of monuments almost impossibly difficult. And in a different but not unrelated way, the sudden passion to cleanse the American landscape of any and all allusions to the Confederacy or slaveholding—a paroxysm more reminiscent of Robespierre than of Lincoln—also suggests the emergence of a public that is losing meaningful contact with its own history.

Why has this happened? In the case of the Eisenhower memorial, it happened because the work of designing the memorial was turned over to a fashionable celebrity architect who proved incapable of subordinating his monumental ego to the task of memorializing a great American hero. But more generally, it has happened because the whole proposition of revering and memorializing past events and persons has been called into question by our prevailing intellectual ethos, which cares little for the authority of the past and frowns on anything that smacks of hero worship or piety toward our forebears. The past is always required to plead its case before the bar of the present, where it generally loses. That ethos is epitomized in the burgeoning academic study of “memory,” a term that refers in this context to something vaguely suspect.

“Memory” designates the sense of history that we all share, which is why monuments and other instruments of national commemoration are especially important in serving as expressions and embodiments of it. But the systematic problematizing of memory—the insistence on subjecting it to endless rounds of interrogation and suspicion, aiming precisely at the destabilization of public meanings—is likely to produce impassable obstacles to the effective public commemoration of the past. Historians have always engaged in the correcting of popular misrenderings of the past, and that is a very important and useful aspect of their job. But “memory studies” tends to carry the debunking ethos much further, consistently approaching collective memory as nothing more than a willful construction of would-be reality rather than any kind of accurate reflection of it. Scholars in the field examine memory with a jaundiced and highly political eye, viewing nearly all claims for tradition or for a worthy past as flimsy artifice designed to serve the interests of dominant classes and individuals, and otherwise tending to reflect the class, gender, and power relations in which those individuals are embedded. Memory, argues historian John Gillis, has “no existence beyond our politics, our social relations, and our histories.” “We have no alternative,” he adds, “but to construct new memories as well as new identities better suited to the complexities of a post-national era.”

The audacity of this agenda could not be clearer. It is nothing less than a drive to expel the nation-state, and completely reconstitute public consciousness around a radically different idea of the purpose of history. It substitutes a whole new set of loyalties, narratives, heroes, and notable events—perhaps directed to some post-national entity, or to a mere abstraction—for the ones inhering in civic life as it now exists. It would mean a complete rupture with the past, and with all admired things that formerly associated themselves with the idea of the nation, including the sacrifices of former generations. Ernest Renan argued that a nation was “a large-scale solidarity, constituted by the feeling of the sacrifices that one has made in the past and of those that one is prepared to make in the future,” as part of a “clearly expressed desire to continue a common life.” That solidarity, that quest to continue a common life—all would surely be placed in jeopardy by the agenda Gillis proposes.