The Power of the Past in American Consciousness and the Fight over History Curricula

The current flap over the right wing politics of Mary Lou Bruner, who is seeking the Republican nomination for the District 9 seat on the Texas State Board of Education, brought to mind the longer-standing debate over the nature of the American past and how it is characterized in our national discourse.

The Texas Board of Education has pressed for a revision to the state’s social studies curriculum over the last several months and is on the verge of successfully altering it along more conservative lines. And has largely been successful. Pundits, bloggers, journalists, and not a few comedians have characterized this, sometimes  hilariously, as part of a larger conservative/liberal split in modern American politics. While that may well be the case, it is also a battle over who we are as a society and how Americans came to be this way.

It is nothing less than a debate/conversation/argument over national identity. It represents a battle for control of the national memory. Will it be one that is unified—one people, one nation—or one that was fragmented and personal? And it has a lengthy history.

It may be that we are living at a time when Americans are seeking to reassert an identity that seemed in jeopardy in the aftermath of the Cold War. Throughout most of American history, albeit with some challenge over time, most Americans have viewed their past as exceptionalistic, nationalistic, and triumphant.  But during the earliest years of struggle with the Soviet Union historians increasingly emphasized an exceptionalistic interpretation of the American past. As Richard Hofstadter, the foremost historian of the consensus school, noted in the 1968 about World War II, Nazi extermination camps, and totalitarianism of all stripes, many people engaged in a rethinking of America came to “a revival of the old feeling that the United States is better and different.” As he explained, “the cold war brought a certain closing of the ranks, a disposition to stress common objectives, a revulsion from Marxism and its tendency to think of social conflict as carried à outrance.” In such a context, Hofstadter asserted, emphasis on conflict in American history seemed quite out of touch with the issues of concern to those seeking to understand the past as an entrée to dealing with present situations.

Richard Hofstadter

That consensus interpretation celebrated the long tradition of shared American ideals and values while de-emphasizing conflict, and that made the United States and the people that made it up somehow better. 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, and certainly such was the case with the best of the consensus school historians such as Hofstadter, 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 (New York: Public Affairs, 2004), p. 63:

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 represented a collective memory of the American past that emphasized the idea of one people, one nation.

This shift of academic history from an emphasis on unity to a multicultural, in some cases divisive, perspective on the past deeply troubled some elements of society. They viewed history as largely a lesson in civics 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 considering other ways of seeing the past, the reexamination of traditional interpretations, and the more multicultural, relativistic, and conflict-oriented approach to delving into history. 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.

Having lost this approach in higher learning, forces of consensus and continuity struggled to control the far more significant and broader reach of history outside the colleges and universities. 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

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, as she said in the Wall Street Journal on October 20, 1994, a “grim and gloomy” perspective on the American past that was far too representative of political correctness.

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. All of that came after a high level commission under the authority of the Council for Basic Education reviewed the standards and a revised edition finally ended the majority of the debate in 1996.

Other critics of the dominant approach to the past of academic historians reacted by providing their own versions of history that emphasized unity and morality, such as Richard Brookhiser’s Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington (Free Press, 1996). Brookhiser, a neo-conservative associated with the National Review, emphasized on the “News Hour with Jim Lehrer” in 1996 that “for all the efforts of, of the historians and the standard biographers, there’s still this, this blankness to the man’s image. So I thought it would be worthwhile to go back and, you know, not to uncover any new, new facts but to just put the ones that we know into a different light and to focus especially on the highlights of this public career and what it was about, about his character that enabled him to do them. You know, I’m not interested in details, if they don’t relate directly to that.”

Brookhiser’s selective retelling of the story of George Washington drew explicit moral lessons from Washington’s career. It was essentially a late twentieth century version of Mason Weems’s The Life of Washington, but without knowingly fabricated tales.

These broad efforts to control the telling of the past has reached a broad audience through television, museums, and the secondary schools. Some of those initiatives were subtle, but others have been heavy handed.  This effort by the Texas Board of Education is one of the more heavy handed in its blatant pursuit of a “one nation, one people” approach to history that strives for consensus and continuity. It represents an attempt to make a morality play of the American past. Will it be successful? If it is, what does in mean for the future of historical understanding in the United States?

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One Response to The Power of the Past in American Consciousness and the Fight over History Curricula

  1. rangerdon says:

    e enum pluribus?


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