Chapter 4: History beyond the Classroom

Even if Americans had no further opportunity beyond the classroom to learn the history of their country, the generalizations, impressions, and conclusions acquired in school would remain. Fortunately, the high-school or college graduate will continue to learn history after leaving school, even if he has no conscious intention of doing so. In fact, he cannot live in America without hearing about its great men, its dramatic episodes, its crises, and its problems. From these informal sources he will also learn a great deal of the history of countries beyond America. The graduate may forget his foreign language, fail to apply his mathematics, and neglect his science, but he cannot avoid more lessons in American history.

These lessons will not come from schools or organized educational groups. Adult education in the United States is not fully developed, and its most successful work has been done in the area of vocational training rather than in the field of the social studies. Few schools or colleges offer courses in American history for adults. But the informal agencies which teach history, particularly American history, are numerous and inescapable. They constitute an integral, though unofficial, part of our educational system. The influence of the motion picture, the press, and the radio rivals that of the schools. A recognition of these out-of-school educational agencies, an appraisal of their performance, and an appreciation of their services may enable the schools to work more effectively. Also, it will help these agencies to improve the quality of their services.

The relation of school history to history beyond the classroom should be more generally recognized. Formal study should furnish a structure, some information, an awareness of movements, trends, and interpretations, and an abiding interest in history. The learning of history beyond the school would then become a conscious enrichment and expansion of the original study. Only a person who knows history can fully appreciate and profit from an historical novel, a play, or a museum. On the other hand, the person whose preparation in history has been inadequate can offset such inadequacy by utilizing available material outside the schools.

The significance of history in the eyes of students will be enhanced by a realization of its importance beyond the classroom. If they perceive that the history of their country has potential interest and value for a lifetime, they will regard it with more appreciation. There is, therefore, no antithesis between school and out-of-school history. The former supplies background for the latter, and history beyond the classroom renews and supplements that which has been acquired in the classroom.

The influence of history beyond the classroom is felt while pupils are still in school. They see historical films and read historical novels, they listen to the radio and look at newspapers and magazines, they visit public libraries and museums. It is difficult to appraise the influence of these out-of-school agencies, but every teacher knows that they can stimulate interest in history and profoundly affect ideas about historical events and characters. Children should be shown how to enjoy and criticize these informal history lessons so that they may use them more intelligently when school days are over.

In this chapter the Committee merely points out the opportunities and suggests the problems created by these out-of-school agencies. It does not attempt to list all the informal means of learning history, but discusses only those which are most active and popular. Such a survey may call attention to neglected possibilities and suggest that much may be learned from the teachers of history who seek no certificates and need no classrooms. It may also show some of the weaknesses of informal history and point out ways in which its quality may be improved.

History lessons beyond the classroom must be presented in an effective and interesting way. They must appeal, or they will be ignored. No one is compelled to see an historical film, listen to a radio lecture, or read a popular biography. Consequently history beyond the classroom usually has the great advantage of being vivid, ingenious, and timely. But in order to gain these qualities it frequently sacrifices some of the most important values of history. It ignores the subtle mixture of the familiar and the strange which characterizes all past eras, and makes our ancestors either exactly like us or inhabitants of an altogether different world. It over-simplifies motives and causal sequences; it gives more significance to individual persons and episodes than they can rightly bear. Some of these faults are the result of artistic necessities, but many are caused by lack of historical understanding. When they become too numerous or too conspicuous, informal history loses its value.

One of the most common and effective agencies for teaching history outside the classroom is the daily newspaper. It frequently gives the historical background of a current event or alludes to previous and similar developments. The widespread practice of presenting columns devoted to the events of twenty-five or fifty years ago helps to build a sense of continuity. Articles devoted wholly to historical themes, persons, and events are not unusual. Editorials and feature articles refer to past events and assume that the readers know and understand the background. Political items take it for granted that the reader knows the results of former elections and the careers of public men. Many of the cartoons would be pointless to the person who knows no history. Thus newspapers teach a great deal of history directly. Indirectly, they sometimes cause their readers to reach for an atlas, an encyclopedia, or an American history.

The history presented by newspapers reaches millions of readers. Its accuracy and objectivity are therefore matters of great consequence. In Europe many newspapers utilize the best historians and thus maintain a high level of quality in their background items and feature articles; in American papers such features are sometimes hastily and inadequately written, being drawn too largely from handy references rather than specialized research. On the other hand, the writings of many foreign correspondents during the Second World War deserve commendation. Several newspapers, press associations, and broadcasting systems have learned the wisdom of selecting a man who is trained in the language, economy, and history of the country to which he is assigned. The quality of reporting has unquestionably risen above that which prevailed in the First World War, when there was little foreign correspondence which had any value as an historical record. In many respects the newspapers are performing an increasingly useful educational service of a higher historical quality.

Magazines are active teachers of history. While the amount of space devoted to historical materials varies greatly with the type of magazine, nearly all of them publish at least occasional articles of an historical nature. Within two years the Atlantic Monthly published serially three substantial historical works. While the popular weekly magazines devote most of their space to current developments and fiction, much of the latter draws heavily upon history. Even the magazines for younger readers utilize history in their stories and articles. The pictorial magazines sometimes devote whole issues to particular periods of history and to particular areas. Women’s magazines seldom publish historical materials except incidentally in connection with fiction, a matter of regret in a nation where women are active citizens.

The extreme variation among magazines with respect to the amount and quality of their contributions to history makes any generalization difficult. Perhaps some magazines would find that a regular history section would meet with approval. Perhaps America needs popular magazines devoted to history. Magazines which could combine timeliness, appeal, and authenticity in their historical selections would fill a gap which now exists in our informal educational system.

Novelists undoubtedly have great influence upon the historical ideas of Americans. Even novels which do not purport to be historical describe the daily life of the people, reproduce the vernacular, and build up impressions which equal or surpass in vividness those presented in formal histories. Many characters from novels acquire a vitality equal to those of real life; in fact many characters from novels seem more real to Americans than some of their presidents and statesmen. Fiction can be a powerful and effective teacher of history.

The historical novel which rests upon sound research may make a contribution to an understanding of the past. The liberties which the novelist takes with time and place and consistency are artistically inevitable. The reader of a novel, however, should guard against accepting as accurate the sense of reality which he gains. This reality too frequently rests upon one presentation only. The person who knows nothing about cowboys or slaves is likely to accept whatever picture of them the novelist cares to present. Novels which present people of past generations as either villains or saints are doing a disservice. The person who desires historical accuracy must supplement novels with history.

Motion pictures and the stage are teachers of history. The habitual attendant of motion pictures will see a film with a definite historical plot and setting every six months. Every three weeks he will see a picture which contains some material concerning a period or event of historical significance. Producers have taken considerable pains to present faithfully not only the costumes, furnishings, equipment, architecture, and general setting but also the speech, manners, and current events of the periods portrayed. Thus the screen’s most valuable contribution is the reproduction of the details of everyday life, an achievement difficult for the writer of history. Motion pictures when carefully made are therefore one of the most effective complements to formal history. One who sees such pictures has gained a clearer, even if distorted, conception of the men and women of former days. The stage possesses similar advantages.

Some of the effects of motion pictures containing historical materials are apparent. The teacher is frequently called upon to answer questions concerning the authenticity of materials in the picture, and a general appraisal of its historical merits is expected. The effects of historical films upon library withdrawals have been tabulated and described. Books about Marco Polo, Mary Queen of Scots, Daniel Webster, Andrew Johnson, and others who have been portrayed in films were in great demand during and following the showing of such films. Some libraries arrange exhibits and lists of books which parallel current pictures, and more than one librarian has declared that historical films stimulate the reading of history.

While the contribution of screen and stage is important and effective, it sometimes presents a romantically unreal impression. Liberties are frequently taken with historical characters, and sentimental interludes sometimes mar otherwise acceptable reconstructions of past events. The emphasis on plot and action also forces directors and playwrights to oversimplify motives and overemphasize the importance of individual heroes. Fortunately, the producers have enlisted the help of experts, and the accuracy of interpretation as well as of details seems to be improving.

One of the most active and aggressive agencies for the dissemination of history is the radio. Through interviews, round tables, forums, news comments, scenes, and plays it presents a multitude of historical materials. Several universities have established schools which use the radio and some school systems use it to teach all the classes of a particular subject. The American Historical Association sponsors “History Behind the Headlines,” a program which has won recognition for its appeal and accuracy. Other associations sponsor historical programs of varying merits. Several universities which own radio stations broadcast popular courses, such as the history of the United States or American government. The broadcasting companies have allocated an increasing amount of time to educational and historical programs. They furnish outlines, guides, and manuals for listeners, thus emphasizing the educational purpose of the program.

While the radio has never seriously threatened to replace the usual classroom work, it has offered rich and colorful supplementation. Within the limitations imposed by the nature of broadcasting, the results have been encouraging. Most schools have not yet used radio programs systematically, but the public, both student and adult, has learned much history and gained information about current problems through this agency.

The public library is not merely a depository for books; it is an active agency for the teaching of history. Many libraries provide reading lists to synchronize with a current development in world affairs, a course in history, a local pageant, a drama, or a motion picture. Some libraries provide a special reading room, a shelf of books, or a bulletin board on the war, a political campaign, or the history of a particular country or topic. The reader who wants to know about the Polish question, the origin of Frontier Day, the authenticity of a play about Disraeli, or the value of Margaret Mitchell’s description of the Reconstruction Period will find the material organized and waiting for him at the public library. Exhibits of pertinent materials appear in the lobbies of theaters where historical films are playing, and bookmark reading lists are sometimes prepared by the libraries for distribution to motion picture patrons. Often there is direct cooperation between the classroom teacher and the public library so that the materials of the latter are conveniently arranged for history students. Since the library is in touch with both school and out-of-school agencies it is in a strategic position to integrate all efforts which tend to promote interest in history.

Historical societies, through their books, magazines, meetings, and pilgrimages, are expert guides to history. Their libraries, manuscript divisions, and museums are devoted to collecting and preserving the heritage of the past. In many states nearly every county and every city of any considerable size has its own society. In some instances these are affiliated with the state society; in others they are officially connected with the school and are directed by the history teacher. Historical societies often maintain direct contact with the schools and thus help to teach history to pupils as well as to adults.

The hundreds of historical museums, both public and private, with their collections of furniture, utensils, dishes, clothing, and countless other relics not only teach the everyday life of the past; they actually restore the surroundings of former periods. The old manuscripts and newspapers give assurance of the permanence of the connections between now and then. These museums teach history. A pioneer log cabin with typical furnishings, an early reaper, an early stagecoach, or an old chest filled with the articles of former periods tell their story as no words or pictures can. Thousands of persons and hundreds of classes of school children annually visit these shrines of the past. Though the lessons which museums teach are sporadic, they are effective and lasting.

Monuments, restorations, battlefields, tombstones, road markers, and plaques are constant reminders of past days and former events. Here stood the brave Confederates; here a straggling band of Indians fought against a civilization which eventually absorbed them; and here lies buried a statesman whose voice once filled the galleries of Congress. The gravestones with their names and dates and their quaint verses recall the contributions of past generations. The road markers of many states, for example those of Virginia and Montana, supply historical in-formation and entertain the traveler who pauses to read their messages. The restorations of forts, buildings, industries, and villages recall the past and recreate its atmosphere.

Homes of famous or prominent persons have been transformed into shrines or museums. Mt. Vernon, Monticello, and Arlington are only three examples of more than five hundred such shrines. While these old homes usually center attention upon a person, they also serve to recall former manners and customs. They thus promote some of the objectives of history.

Pageants, fairs, exhibitions, and special holiday celebrations frequently stress historical aspects. Hundreds of localities, conscious of colorful pioneer days, of a particular event, of some product or a native son, hold annual or occasional celebrations. The rodeos of several western cities and the old settlers’ days of many communities are examples of this combination of business and entertainment which is so frequently based upon some historical theme. The floats, displays, entertainment, orations, and ceremonies recreate the past, build up local pride, and deepen patriotic feelings.

Historical allusions, episodes, and anecdotes abound in public speeches. Sermons often include descriptions and narratives about important and typical persons from the past. Lecturers and entertainers utilize the familiar background of our nation’s history to give point and emphasis to their speeches. Anniversary speakers are committed to a review of the past. Candidates for public office usually “point with pride” and “view with alarm” and draw from the pages of history to prove their points. They try to associate the party with the history of the nation by recalling glorious episodes in the past for which their organization may receive credit. Dedications, commemorations, holiday celebrations, and many special occasions inevitably involve a recital of former achievements as well as exhortations to emulate our predecessors. The quality of historical information and interpretation presented in public speeches is often not high, but even the misuse of history to influence attitudes and persuade people to action is striking testimony to its vitality.

Family and community traditions are also teachers of history. The birthplace and migrations of ancestors, however remote, supply a link with the past and frequently make their contribution to European as well as to American history. Families thus supply a thread of personal continuity which leads back as far as knowledge or imagination can follow it. Letters, visits, and reunions not only cement family ties; they also build that intimate network of understanding which touches the entire country. The school, the college, the society, the church, the club, the union, and other organizations and institutions win loyalties by appeals to traditions, to old beliefs and principles; they recall the past in order to influence the present and control the future.

Place names afford endless entertainment and lead to for-gotten persons and episodes. Counties, cities, streets, parks, rivers, and mountains by their very names point to Revolutionary heroes, European backgrounds, old families, and community origins. The old inn, the school house, the highway, even the names of commercial products carry their persistent reminders of American builders and workers of former days.

That graduate of a school or college who shuts his history book thinking that he has come to the end of the story will soon realize that he cannot get away from the past, neither his own nor his country’s. The past speaks, though sometimes obscurely, through newspapers and magazines, motion pictures and radio, libraries and museums, festivals and social organizations. It cannot be avoided or disregarded. The past is as inevitable as the future, as inescapable as the present. The person who learns history as a student and continues to study it as an adult will understand and appreciate the present better and will see more clearly into the future. For such a person the unofficial “teachers” of history will supplement the information he learned in the classroom and thus make a significant contribution to his continuing education.