Chapter 2: Why Should Americans Know Their Own History?

Whatever interpretation one may make of the results of the test discussed in the first chapter, one fact is clear. Americans do not know their own history as well as they might. The next questions are obvious. Is this a serious deficiency in the education of Americans? Does knowledge of the history of our nation contribute something to the making of a citizen which can be acquired in no other way? If the answers to these questions are affirmative, then a new emphasis on and a new approach to the study of United States history are necessary.

Laymen and educators are generally agreed that knowledge of our own history is essential in the making of Americans. The reasons for this belief may be summed up under four main heads. History makes loyal citizens because memories of common experiences and common aspirations are essential ingredients in patriotism. History makes intelligent voters because sound decisions about present problems must be based on knowledge of the past. History makes good neighbors because it teaches tolerance of individual differences and appreciation of varied abilities and interests. History makes stable, well-rounded individuals because it gives them a start toward understanding the pattern of society and toward enjoying the artistic and intellectual productions of the past. It gives long views, a perspective, a measure of what is permanent in a nation’s life. To a people it is what memory is to the individual; and memory, express or unconscious, guides the acts of every sentient being.

All this is true, but not in an exclusive sense. History leads to all these goals; so do other subjects studied in the schools. Civics, geography, and sociology also aid in developing loyal and intelligent citizens; art and literature help to create tolerant, sympathetic, well-rounded individuals. Each one has a definite place in the curriculum.

The unique importance of history is based not on its objectives, which are common to other school subjects, but on its methods and materials. History relates the social experience of our people in concrete and detailed form. It deals with specific and unique events instead of with averages and abstractions. It is interested in the experiences of groups of ordinary individuals as well as in the achievements of extraordinary persons. History arranges its materials in chronological order and thus is naturally led to stress the concepts of change and continuity, of development and decay. This time dimension cannot be given so much emphasis in any other school subject. In short, history attempts to present the facts of social experience in the same form and order in which the facts of individual experience occur.

Formal history is an attempt to widen and deepen the stream of historical thinking which flows through every man’s mind. We are all historians, as Carl Becker once said; we are all forced to use our knowledge of the past in every act of daily life. We do something because we have always done it; we refrain from doing something because we have found that unpleasant consequences develop from that particular action. Faced with a new situation, we try to find in it elements which are familiar from past experience. If we could not learn from the past we would find the present unendurable. We would be perpetual strangers in the city of mankind, unable to move easily or with confidence, forever wandering from the main streets into the blind alleys. Men who cannot remember their own personal history are feeble-minded or afflicted; men who cannot learn from their own experience are failures.

What is true of individuals is also true of communities. Every organized social group is guided by its recollection of the past. If it does not think about its past it will be ruled by custom, but only the most primitive peoples remain at this level. Everywhere else there is a conscious effort to learn from the past, because knowledge of the past is the guide to acting in the present and planning for the future. It is hard to see how a community could exist without a sense of its past. It could not know that it was now a community if it did not know that it had been a community. It could not have a common policy if it did not remember the common experiences from which policy must be derived. We have all laughed at the story of the college which opened its doors in September and called a mass-meeting of the student body in October to determine its traditions, but there was a good deal of sense behind this somewhat premature action. Until the college had traditions it would not be a community of students and teachers but merely an unstable mixture of individuals.

We all use history; we all appeal to past experience in making both individual and group decisions. Much of the history we use comes to us naturally and without effort; we remember our own experiences and those of the people with whom we are most closely associated. In a small community or a primitive society this informal history meets most needs. In a large community or a complex society it is inadequate. There are many experiences, important in the life of the whole community, which the individual will never encounter in his own life because they are too remote in space or in time. It is essential for the individual to know something about these experiences because they influence the life of his community, because they form the necessary basis for any intelligent decision.

The more complex the society, the wider and deeper its roots go into the past. It was not very important for our ancestors of the eighteenth century to know the history of the Far East; it is of greatest importance for us to know something of that history today. It was not very important for our ancestors to know the history of the republics of the ancient world when they were hewing new settlements out of the wilderness, but when the Founding Fathers met at Philadelphia in 1787 almost every delegate made constant reference to the Greek and Roman experience. Formal history is needed to bridge the gap between the limited experience of the individual and the tremendously complicated experience on which our civilization is built.

Once these general principles are understood, it is easier to see how the study of history, and especially of American history, contributes to the educational objectives mentioned above. History can help to make loyal citizens because history has helped to make the nation. It was the sense of having had the same experiences, of having suffered the same wrongs, of having attempted the same remedies, which encouraged the thirteen colonies to unite in the War of the Revolution. It was the memory of the common experience in that war, added to a common political and intellectual background, which made the drafting and adoption of the Constitution possible. And the idea of the Union, which in the end proved strong enough to override the terrible divisions of the Civil War, was based on the belief that in working together for three generations we had created a way of life which should not be allowed to perish.

Common experience and common aspirations make a nation, and they can be most easily found and most fully understood through a study of its history. The symbols in which a nation tries to express its spirits are historical symbols. Our national festivals—Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July—commemorate the great men and events of our history. The aspirations of the American, people are epitomized in the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address. The log cabin and the covered wagon remind us of the conquest of a continent, Faneuil Hall and Monticello of the heroic age of the Republic. How can a boy who knows only an Iowa farm or a Pennsylvania factory town understand the full meaning of these symbols—how can he know the temper and spirit of the nation, what we have been and what we wish to be—if he does not know our history? How can he understand his own community if he does not understand how it has influenced and been influenced by the history of the country? The nation is greater than our own experiences, and its greatness can be comprehended only by knowing something of the deeds and the hopes of our fellow-Americans.

The value of American history in preparing future voters for intelligent participation in politics is so obvious that the point hardly needs elaboration. Parties and candidates always try to identify themselves with admirable episodes and individuals in our past. Every political campaign involves questions of historical interpretation. We have repeatedly argued the great question of federal and local authority, government and business, isolation and cooperation in world affairs. No voter can make an intelligent decision about such problems unless he knows what our policies have been and what results they have produced.

Even more important than knowledge of specific facts is the type of thinking which is encouraged by the study of history. A student who has learned to think in terms of historical development should realize both the certainty and the gradualness of change. He should realize the complexity of even the simplest social problems and the uselessness of superficial solutions. He should be able to avoid the extreme optimism which keeps men from seeing the existence of a problem until it has become acute and the extreme pessimism which leads to hasty and ill-considered action. The democratic process does not work well with citizens who become panicky and seek patent remedies, and knowledge of the crises of the past is one of the best safeguards against these weaknesses.

Americans must be good neighbors as well as good citizens. No country so large and so productive as the United States can exist without diversity of occupations, interests, and beliefs. Any attempt to impose uniformity would keep us from making the most of our human and geographical resources. Any attempt to treat large groups of Americans as second-class citizens would destroy the unity of the nation. The “100-per-cent American” who insists on absolute conformity in belief and behavior is unconsciously trying to destroy at least 50 per cent of American life. We need more tolerance; we need active appreciation of the contributions of all the kinds of people who make up our country. The study of history can do much to create this state of mind. The student who can see that both Hamilton and Jefferson helped to establish the Republic will be less inclined to treat his political opponents as traitors and outcasts. The student who can see that both the pioneer farmer in the Middle West and the pioneer ironmaster in Pennsylvania helped to make the Republic strong will be less inclined to denounce a particular economic group as the cause of all our troubles. The student who knows what was done by Steuben and Gallatin, Ericsson and Pulitzer, Booker T. Washington and St. Gaudens, will be less inclined to ascribe all virtue and intelligence to a single racial group. The platitude that it takes all kinds of people to make the world is usually uttered in a tone of sour resignation. What history, does is to point out that the world can exist only by having all sorts of people in it.

If history can teach an individual how to live with his neighbors, it has already begun to teach him how to live with himself. Understanding and appreciating what has been done by others is one way of keeping life from becoming monotonous and meaningless. History, when properly taught, shows the importance of religion, art, and literature as much as it does that of economic and political processes. And even if history does not introduce the student to the literature and art of the past it can increase his enjoyment by placing these works in their proper setting. Moreover, history itself gives pleasure to many people. It has an interesting story to tell, and it illustrates aspects of human behavior which the arts singly have never been able to present.

There is also a stabilizing influence in the study of history; in binding the individual to the past it keeps him from being blown about by the winds of hope and despair. Young people, when they are not thinking that every one of their ideas is new and every one of their successes unique, are apt to be thinking that every misfortune is unprecedented, every loss irretrievable, every suffering unparalleled. There is something comforting in the realization that others have had the same troubles, just as there is something chastening in the realization that others have accomplished a good deal even if they did live in the dark ages before 1900. Courage and humility, a realization that individuals make history and that it takes many of them to do it—these are some of the fruits of historical studies, and the individual who has gathered them has gone a long way toward adjusting himself to the world in which he lives.

The study of history can help to develop loyal, intelligent, cooperative, well-rounded, and well-balanced American citizens. But not everything which is labeled history will produce these results, and even the best history will not be effective if its lessons are not reinforced by other experiences, both inside and outside the school. Everything that men have said and done is raw material for history, but history is more than a pile of this raw material, just as a book is more than a heap of type.

Historians must select from the vast record of human activity those events and ideas, institutions and personalities, which seem to have significance; they have the further obligation of explaining why the events which were chosen are significant. They have usually found the first task easier than the second. No two historians would produce exactly identical lists of important events, but no two historians would fail to produce lists which had many items in common. School courses in history have usually been formed around this common core of events recognized by most scholars as important. Unfortunately teachers and writers of history sometimes seem too exhausted by the labor of selection to undertake the work of interpretation. They know why the events are important, and they expect their students to accept without question the statement that they are important. There still are courses in history in which students memorize long lists of facts without ever receiving an explanation of the significance of the facts. Students taught in this way can hardly be blamed for finding history dull and useless. They might as well be asked to learn the geography and economic activities of their town by memorizing the telephone directory.

Teachers and writers who avoid the purely factual approach to history may fall into still other errors. One of the most important lessons of history is that all human activities are interrelated. We all know that a religious revival may lead to important political decisions, or that an economic depression may have profound influence on art and literature, but it is difficult to point out these relationships to a class. It is easier to keep the topics separate during most of the course, and to spend only a few minutes building flimsy bridges from one to the other.

An even worse fault in teaching history is the tendency to emphasize one activity at the expense of all the rest. America has had a rich experience, and no single approach will do full justice to what we have achieved. American democracy has been expressed in our economic structure and in our literature as well as in our political institutions. American ideals have been upheld by our religious and intellectual leaders at times when they have been almost forgotten by our political and economic leaders. Excessive concentration on any one aspect of the past may lead students to believe that social problems are simpler than they really are, that all difficulties may be solved by one method, that many activities are useless because they are unrecorded in school textbooks.

A history course which is broad enough to give a true picture of American society may nevertheless be inadequate because it emphasizes social forces instead of individuals, solutions instead of problems. History is the record of human decision as well as the record of human experience. Men have always had to choose, and choose at their peril, between alternative lines of action. History is made by men and not by blind forces beyond human control. There is no reason to be proud of the American achievement if it was inevitable and predestined. There is no reason for a student to prepare himself for the responsibilities of citizenship if he feels that all problems solve themselves automatically. We must discuss great men as well as great events; we must think of what might have been as well as what was.

Finally, if the study of history is to prepare Americans for living in the world of today, that study must not be wholly confined to the history of the United States. We must know our own history if we are to understand our country and deal adequately with its problems. But many aspects of our history can be fully understood only in the perspective of world history, and many of our problems cannot be solved without reference to other peoples. The American Revolution was part of a world war in which four European countries were involved; the development of American industry has often been affected by events which took place abroad. If we know only our own history we are apt to exaggerate both our achievements and our failures. Such exaggerated ideas of superiority and inferiority (the two can exist simultaneously) easily lead a people astray, and such ideas can best be checked by a study of world history. It is also true that Americans have not yet had all the experience of other peoples, and that certain ideas and forms of social organization which may affect our country in the future can be studied at present only by going beyond the limits of the United States. For these reasons it seems clear that the intensive study of American history should be supplemented by a survey of the history of the more important foreign countries.

Since history is concerned with all significant human achievement, it is dependent on almost every other subject taught in the schools. The historian has neither the time nor the ability to discuss in detail all the activities which he hopes to bring into meaningful relation with one another. If his students do not know something about literature and government, art and economics, he will find himself teaching empty verbalisms. The materials of history cannot be understood if the content of other subjects has not been studied. The lessons of history cannot be applied if they are not given direction and meaning by the other social studies and the other fields of human knowledge.

The historian believes that knowledge of the past will help us to understand the present, but he knows that his primary job is to explain the past. Immediate concern with the present is reserved for the teachers of politics, sociology, and economics, and much historical knowledge is useful and usable only after they have done their work. The historian believes that knowledge of our past will help to develop good citizens and good neighbors, but he knows that history describes what was done instead of what should have been done. Values and ideals, civic and private virtues, are implied in the study of history, but they are made explicit through courses in religion, literature, and civics. The historian believes that knowledge of the past will help to produce well-rounded, well-balanced individuals, but he knows that history alone will not give this result. The well-rounded man must know something of the sciences and the arts as well as something of the social studies; the well-balanced man may find stability in studying the works of individuals as well as the work of society.

Finally, it must be remembered that history is only a guide, not a dictator, that it can suggest but cannot command. The closest study of past experience does not guarantee that we will draw the proper inferences from our study; the deepest knowledge of the aspirations and ideals of our ancestors does not guarantee that we will live up to their standards. And even the suggestions gained from the study of history can be stifled quickly by an unfavorable environment outside the school. If we are not good citizens we can hardly expect the schools to make good citizens of our children. If there is a conflict between what is taught in the school and what is done in the community, it is not the school which will be victorious. Community inertia and selfishness cannot be overcome by filling our history courses with boastful and exaggerated claims about the strength and virtues of the nation. This kind of teaching not only destroys the values of history by giving students false ideas about our country; it is not even effective as propaganda. The experience of France is instructive on this point. The French schools taught their national history carefully, thoroughly, and effectively. They emphasized the value of French civilization and the wisdom of French policy, while saying little about the objectives and achievements of other peoples. Few other countries devoted as much time to national history or presented it in as attractive form. But what the schools taught was the union of all citizens in unselfish support of their country, and what the students saw about them were irreconcilable cleavages between Right and Left, greedy politicians plotting for office, and cynical individuals seeking favors from a corrupt government. When the test came, the ideals taught in the schools were not strong enough to overcome promptly the decay of the nation’s social and political leadership.

The United States has great traditions to remember and great ideals for which to strive. But if the traditions and the ideals exist only in textbooks and classrooms they are museum pieces. We must live our traditions and our ideals before we can teach them. The study of American history can help to produce loyal, intelligent, cooperative, well-rounded citizens only if our society honors citizens who possess these qualities.