Imprimis

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.



We often speak these days of global citizenship, and see it as a form of advanced consciousness to which our students should be made to aspire. But global citizenship is, at best, a fanciful phrase, abstract and remote, unspecific in its requirements. Actual citizenship is different, since it entails membership in the life of a particular place. It means having a home address. Education does young people no favors when it fails to equip them for that kind of membership. Nor does it do the rest of us any favors. We will not be able to uphold our democracy unless we know our great stories, our national narratives, and the admirable deeds of our great men and women. The new AP U.S. History framework fails on that count, because it does not see the civic role of education as a central one.

As in other areas, we need an approach to the past that conduces most fully to a healthy foundation for our common, civic existence—one that stoutly resists the culture of fracture rather than acceding to it. This is not a call for an uncritical, triumphalist account of the past. Such an account would not be an advance, since it would fail to give us the tools of intelligent and morally serious self-criticism. But neither does an approach that, in the name of post-national anti-triumphalism, reduces American history to the aggregate sum of a multitude of past injustices and oppressions, without bringing those offenses into their proper context—without showing them as elements in the great story of a longer American effort to live up to lofty and demanding ideals. Both of these caricatures fail to do what we have a right to expect our history to do. Nor, alas, will professional historians be much help, since their work proceeds from a different set of premises.

Historians will find their public again when the public can find its historians—historians who keep in mind that the writing of our history is to be for that public. Not for in the sense of fulfilling its expectations, flattering its prejudices, and disguising its faults. Not for in the sense of underwriting a particular political agenda. But for in the sense of being addressed to them, as one people with a common past and a common future, affirmative of what is noblest and best in them, and directed towards their fulfillment. History has been a principal victim of the age of fracture. But it can also be a powerful antidote to it.