Consensus History, or Not?

textbook-thumb-200x282-80797It may be that we are living at a time when Americans are seeking to reassert a national and cultural identity that seemed in jeopardy in the aftermath of the Cold War. Throughout most of American history, many Americans’ conceptions of their past has been informed by views of nationalism, exceptionalism, and triumphalism. During the earliest years of struggle with the Soviet Union (in 1917 or 1945? unclear) historians increasingly emphasized an exceptionalistic interpretation of the American past.

That consensus interpretation celebrated the long tradition of shared American ideals and values while de-emphasizing conflict, and that made the United States and its people somehow more socially advanced. Its advocates questioned the ideas and people who challenged those cherished principles, seeing in many of them strains of authoritarianism, anarchy, and narrow- and simple-mindedness of all varieties. Much of this approach, advocated a pragmatic liberalism that many believed was in constant jeopardy from forces of fear, anti-intellectualism, and authoritarianism.

But that master narrative of American history began to break down with the rise of the new social history of the 1960s. As Peter Charles Hoffer commented in Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Fraud—American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin (2004):

Outraged by the Viet Nam War and inspired by the civil rights movement, this new generation of professional historians set themselves the task of dismantling consensus history. Some of them were political radicals, and they gave renewed life to the progressive critique of consensus. Others were more concerned with black history and women’s history and were determined to move the story of these groups to center stage.

By the 1980s, the consensus, exceptionalistic perspective on the American past had crumbled throughout academia, but it had not done so among the broader public and in the cultural institutions that sought to speak to the public. Those sectors represented a collective memory of the American past that was largely comforting and emphasized the idea of one people, one nation.

This shift of academic history from an emphasis on broad social unity to a multicultural, in some cases divisive, perspective on the past deeply troubled some elements of society. These traditionally minded groups viewed history as largely a civics lesson and a means of instilling in the nation’s citizenry a sense of awe and reverence for the nation-state and its system of governance. They questioned the necessity of alternate views of seeing the past, the reexamination of traditional interpretations, and the more multicultural, relativistic, and conflict-oriented approach to historical inquiry.

It was during this era that “revisionist history” first entered the lexicon as a term of derision, as if understanding of the past could never be altered in any way. Numerous castings of aspersions on the academic approach to history, the fruits of professors’ historical research, and professional historians as a group emerged from the 1980s on and accelerated as the century came to a close.

This debate represented a battle for control of the national memory. Would that vision be one that is unified—one people, one nation—or one that is fragmented and personal? Having lost this battle in higher education, or perhaps not even fully joining it, the forces of consensus and continuity struggled to control the far more significant and broader reach of history outside the colleges and universities. Critics believed that they had to prevail in those settings for the good of the nation as a whole. The effort became something of a crusade, but not one orchestrated from the top down via some master plan. Instead, as individual issues arose the cultural right joined the fray to defeat what they viewed as a damaging, unusable version of the American past.

Attacks on the “new social history” abounded in the 1990s, such as the conflict over the National History Standards. Lynne Cheney, who had actually overseen the beginning of the effort as director of the National Endowment of the Humanities in 1992, led an attack on the National History Standards being created for K-12 educators beginning in 1994, and it did not abate for over a year. She, as well as many other conservatives, took aim at the National History Standards as representative of the perspective of academic historians and one that failed to buttress the nation-state. It presented, in her estimation, a “grim and gloomy” perspective on the American past that was far too representative of political correctness.

As columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote at the time of the debate, “The whole document strains to promote the achievements and highlight the victimization of the country’s preferred minorities, while straining equally to degrade the achievements and highlight the flaws of the white males who ran the country for its first two centuries.” In the end the conservative assault succeeded in forcing a major revision of the standards and the wholesale jettisoning of the teaching examples that had engendered the most serious criticism.

These efforts to control the telling of the past in the public sphere reached a broad audience through many avenues such as television, museums, and the elementary and secondary schools. Some of those efforts were subtle, but others have been heavy-handed. For example, as recently as June 2006 Florida Governor Jeb Bush signed the “A++” law aimed at reforming K-12 education in his state. A small but significant part of this legislation dealt with the teaching of history. Among other things, it mandated that “American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed, shall be viewed as knowable, teachable, and testable, and shall be defined as the creation of a new nation based largely on the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.”

It also directed a “character-development curriculum [that] shall stress the qualities of patriotism, responsibility, citizenship, kindness, respect for authority, life, liberty, and personal property, honesty, charity, self-control, racial, ethnic, and religious tolerance, and cooperation.” Finally, it directed an emphasis on “the nature and importance of free enterprise to the United States economy.”

While much of this language would place a “civics” spin on the teaching of American history—and could be largely innocuous—should the law find rigorous enforcement it offers room for only a narrow presentation of historical facts and little latitude for interpretation. Interpretation, of course, is the “stuff” of historical investigation and imagination; this approach represents a blatant pursuit of a “one nation-one people” approach to history and strives for consensus and continuity.

Should consensus of conflict, or something else, dominate our investigation of the past. I was struck in the last couple of weeks by the debate over the Marxist interpretation of American history that Howard Zinn offered and the efforts of Mitch Daniels, President of Purdue University, to quash use of his books in classes. I don’t agree with his hard-edged Marxist interpretation, but even more I don’t agree that censorship in the marketplace of ideas is appropriate. I would much prefer to see all positions debated, and I am pollyannish enough to believe that the most valid historical ideas will gain credence. In this process, will history be interpreted in a consensus manner, or not?

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4 Responses to Consensus History, or Not?

  1. kennethpkatz says:

    There is a wide range of worthwhile scholarship. That range does not include scholarship which advances the causes of totalitarian ideologies such as Communism (Howard Zinn’s preference), fascism, Nazism and Islamism, none of which have any use for truth and all of which use ideas in combination with force to impose their murderous rule.


  2. mike shupp says:

    I understand the notion will destroy Mr Katz’s hold on sanity, but there’s this thing called the First Amendment which says all sorts of stuff, not just what’s Safe For Ordinary Minds, can be printed in this country, and even read and debated and thought about and advocated. No doubt God Himself in the Heavens is puking because of this, but clearly the hand of Satan gripped George Washington and Madison and Monroe and Hamilton and Franklin and all those other evil men who conspired to ruin our great nation several centuries ago and now it’s too late for us to fix.

    Leave the country, I suggest to Mr Katz — there is no other safety, Take refuge in China, I suggest as well — that’s a land where the authorities understand the power of words and the need to limit the masses’ access to them! (Also, conservatives will be pleased to discover that the Chinese rulers embrace markets more strongly than in the US, that labor unions there are kept under the tightest control, that the Army is properly revered, that Spanish-speaking immigrants are virtually unknown, and — wonder of wonders — there is neither Social Security nor a national health plan. Truly, Life can be Good! Make your travel plans immediately.)


  3. mike shupp says:

    And for those of us not fleeing the country, let’s be candid. Mitch Daniels was OMB Director back in the Reagan days — a very high level position indeed in the US government. And he was for some years a fellow at the Hudson Institute, a generally well regarded think tank. In other words, he was or successfully posed as intellectual, perhaps even as An Intellectual, even before he donned the robes of a university president.

    Is it actually likely that such a man quailed, intellectually incapable of meeting the challenge of unfamiliar thoughts presented by Howard Zinn? I really don’t think so. I think it rather more likely that Daniels knows what Zinn’s ideas are because he read Zinn’s books, or at least leafed through them, or had their ideas summarized for him by other people whose minds he respected. And I think he’s decided that There Are Votes! in demanding that other Americans should be prevented from engaging in the same acts of intellect.

    He’s chosen to be a demagogue, in other words.

    Pity, since he didn’t begin that way. But I’m sure the same came be said of Joseph Goebbels.


  4. mike shupp says:

    My third effort…

    I keep wanting to say “Sure, you’re right. There ought to be more of a concensus on the state of our nation and our understanding of its history.” As you can see, I’m finding it difficult.

    I think the US actually in a very bad spot right now. Voters and their leaders (I will NOT use the term “elites”.) are almost equally divided over fundamental issues at the very heart of what sort of society we are and should be, and compromise seems impossible, We’ve been arguing about the need for and the shape of Social Security programs for the elderly for 80 years now; Medicare for the elderly has been debated for 50 years since its enactment; and providing healthcare for all our citizens in hugely contentious more than 20 years after Bill Clinton reached the White House. The government’s unprecedented ability and its extraordinary implacable drive to monitor not only our actions down to the finest detail but even our very thoughts is provoking a frenzy which will probably not soon subside. Nativism and fear of foreigners, whether Hispanic or Muslim or whatever, seems to be reaching new heights. We’re still divided on whether blacks and whites are equally treated by the law and by each other, and by whether women are fairly treated in labor markets. We’ve been arguing about abortion for over 40 years after court decisions which were supposed to have settled such issues. Gay rights have been debated for about as long.

    We’ve got human-generated warming of the planet, and immediate government-mandated action (taxes! building nuclear powers!) is essential. Or we don’t, and it isn’t. The economy sucks, and that always raises political issues to the boiling point.

    Et cetera. et cetera. It seems we can’t move forward (how can we ask deeply concerned people to compromise on the murder of unborn children?) and we can’t move backward (oh, for the Good Old Days when elderly folks had the good sense to die in their 60s at work instead of lazing about in luxurious retirement communities enjoying their Alzheimers into their 80s!).

    I think the last time American society was so conflicted and seemingly so incapable of movement was probably the 1840-60 period, when slavery (and perhaps nativism and the difficulties of western expansion) provided the focus of malaise. And we know how that was finally resolved!

    Are things so bad today? Likely not. I don’t think the issues that so concern the most vocal of our politicians and pundits actually have much traction in 98 % of the population. People adapted with not much lasting trauma to the existence of Catholiics in our beautiful pure Protestant homeland, and eventually found affection for a Catholic president; most have reconciled themselves to the existence of a black president; some eagerly anticipate women presidents, and I trust that we’ll handle ourselves cheerfully when gays and even transsexuals take over the Oval Office. Most importantly, the US is an economic and military superpower and will likely remain so for the rest of the century, and no political faction is eager to risk that situation. As Franklin once noted, the dangers of division are a pressing inducement to unity (“hanging together” as he put it).

    I think we’ll come back together eventually. But it’s going to take time — to be blunt, another 20 to 40 years, time enough for the baby-boomers to die off, time enough for the generation or two born after them — after us! — to reach retirement and their own long demise. By mid century, the slow machinations of history will move us into an era where our present concerns seem as live and vital as our need to smash down the Kaiser’s bid for world domination/ But we aren’t there yet, and I suspect we will find impediments to our enjoyment of Nirvana even then.

    Ah well!


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