History, the Past, and Public Culture: Results from a National Survey

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With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the AHA partnered with Fairleigh Dickinson University to develop and implement a national survey to assess public perceptions of, and engagement with, the discipline of history and the past. The 40-question survey explores the public’s definition of the term “history,” where audiences access history, which sources of history are perceived to be reliable, their historical learning experiences, attitudes toward historical revision, correlations between civic engagement and an interest in history, and the perceived value of history. The report provides as much survey data as possible for these topics, in a user-friendly format including over 150 charts illustrating our results. Complete raw survey data are available for download for those wanting to explore these topics in more depth.

Introduction

A black circle around the words We the People and a Bald Eagle from an official document

This project aspired to take America’s historical pulse by assessing public perceptions of, and engagement with, the discipline of history and the past. 

Introduction

1. How Does the Public Define “History”?

Bopiliao historical block in Taiwan. Thin rectangular wooden blocks arranged hanging in a row in a box with years listed on them. Photo by Henry & Co. via Unsplash

A sizeable majority of survey respondents equated “history” with nuts-and-bolts factual material as opposed to explanations about the past. That said, there are measurable differences in those views as a function of such factors as age and political affiliation. Moreover, those favoring an explanatory view of history showed signs of greater interest in, and perhaps empathy for, peoples and events far removed from the respondents.

1. How Does the Public Define “History”?

2. Why Does the Public Care about the Past (If It Cares at All)?

A black and white photo of a crowd of people holding their fists above their heads, looking at a point on the horizon. Photo by  Cooper Baumgartner via Unsplash.

The great majority of survey respondents indicated interest in history for reasons transcending classroom requirements. In fact, formal education held little attraction as a motivator to learn about the past. Meanwhile, a nontrivial proportion of respondents voiced no interest at all in learning history. In all cases, cross-tabulations expose differences as a function of age, education level, race/ethnicity, and political affiliation.

2. Why Does the Public Care about the Past (If It Cares at All)?

3. Where Do People Get Their History?

A television screen showing the Queen of England at the marriage of Prince Charles to Diana Spencer, a 1980s 35mm film slide photo. Photo by  Annie Spratt via Unsplash.

Respondents reported utilizing a wide variety of sources to learn about the past, but those sources were consulted to widely varying degrees. Forms of history that could be consumed more passively were preferred, while more traditional sources of the past tended to be consulted less often. Nevertheless, there were notable differences in utilization of sources among demographic subgroups.

3. Where Do People Get Their History?

4. Which Sources of the Past Are Viewed as Trustworthy?

The top part of the buildig of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. Photo by Clark Van Der Beken via Unsplash.

Just because the public frequently turns to a particular source for information about history does not necessarily make that source trustworthy in respondents’ eyes. Tangible repositories of the past such as museums and historic sites take top billing here, with fictionalized versions of history and social media at the other pole. Within those topline results, however, are substantial discrepancies among demographic groups.

4. Which Sources of the Past Are Viewed as Trustworthy?

5. How Does the Public Want to Learn about the Past?

An aerial photo of Moray, an Inca archaeological site on a high plateau featuring a series of concentric terraces by Maras, Peru. Photo by Pedro Lastra via Unsplash

A healthy majority of respondents reported preferring unmediated learning experiences with history via direct consultations with texts and artifacts, as opposed to receiving information from an expert. The public also voiced a penchant for history that challenges extant knowledge, even though most also felt that being entertained offered learning benefits. Although there were variations by subgroups, there is more consistency than discrepancy in the survey results.

5. How Does the Public Want to Learn about the Past?

6. What Have the Public’s History Education Experiences Been Like?

A classroom with a blue chair to the left in front of a wood desk with blue sides and long wooden desks with chairs for the students. Photo by  Haseeb Modi via Unsplash.

If much of the public is predisposed to defining history as an assembly of facts, part of the reason may stem from how the subject is taught in classroom settings. Our findings indicate that high school and college focus to greater or lesser degrees on factual matters, though respondents nonetheless reported increased interest in the discipline as a result of their experiences. Answers to open-ended questions exposed other areas of success and concern for instruction of the past.

6. What Have the Public’s History Education Experiences Been Like?

7. What Aspects of the Past Does the Public Want to Learn More About?

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Respondents weighed in on various sources of the past and how much those sources encouraged them to learn more history. As we have seen in respondents’ thoughts on other areas of historical sources, there is more variability than consistency between engagement, trustworthiness, and utilization. Survey results also show that the majority of people see distant people, places, and topics as equally important to more proximate ones, though there are often double-digit differences between subgroups.

7. What Aspects of the Past Does the Public Want to Learn More About?

8. How Much Does the Public Value the Field of History and Historians’ Work?

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The supposed inutility of a history degree has become a cliché, reinforced by declining history enrollment figures on college campuses. Despite that, respondents voiced strong support for the importance of learning about the past, even relative to ostensibly more practical fields—a trend that held across demographic groups. What is lacking, survey results indicate, is historians’ adequate treatment of certain peoples and topics, while others garner too much attention.

8. How Much Does the Public Value the Field of History and Historians’ Work?

9. What Are the Public’s Attitudes toward a Changing and Uncomfortable Past?

Vintage globe close up, with the globe centered on Africa and the Middle East. Photo by Artem Beliaikin via Unsplash.

A majority of Americans across nearly all demographic groups surveyed recognize that interpretations of history should change, but their understandings of why those changes take place vary. Additionally, nearly two-thirds of those surveyed agreed that it is acceptable to teach history about the harm done to others, even if such an approach causes learners discomfort. The widest divisions, especially as a function of political party affiliation, surfaced when people were asked whether history should question or celebrate the nation’s past.

9. What Are the Public’s Attitudes toward a Changing and Uncomfortable Past?

10. Is There a Link between Historical Outlooks and Civic Engagement?

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The public has various reasons for taking interest in history. In correlating those interests with a selection of civic activities, we found minor effects. Stronger factors in whether respondents were engaged in their communities are age, education level, race/ethnicity, and even political affiliation. Nevertheless, we also learned that those who expressed no interest in learning about the past were consistently among the least civically active.

10. Is There a Link between Historical Outlooks and Civic Engagement?

Appendix A: Survey Development and Methodology

Project leaders enlisted the assistance of a national advisory committee and regional experts to develop the 40-question survey, which was administered using Ipsos’s KnowledgePanel®, the largest online panel in the US that relies on probability-based sampling methods.

Appendix A: Survey Development and Methodology

Appendix B: Survey Instrument and Topline Results

The national survey to assess public interest in and engagement with the discipline of history and the past was conducted in English and Spanish from October 2–18, 2020. A total of 1,816 US adults completed the survey. Statistical results are weighted to correct known demographic discrepancies.

Appendix B: Survey Instrument and Topline Results

Appendix C: Project Advisers

The AHA is grateful to the dozens of advisers for their involvement with History, the Past, and Public Culture: An Exploratory Survey. We include the list of members of the advisory committee and attendees of focus group meetings consulted as part of the survey development process.

Appendix C: Project Advisers