When I was in college, I took classes on the French Revolution and Napoleon. My professor assigned us books to read that would supplement the lectures. One book was on the economic and demographic statistics of France during that period. It was as dry as an old cupboard. I was bored out of my mind, and I had to force myself to read it. The professor also assigned a biography of Horatio Nelson. I breezed right through that book and appreciated the lessons on character that I gleaned from it. I’m currently reading a book on Napoleon from that course that I didn’t get to read while I was taking the class. It’s also a biography, and it’s one of the most interesting and informative books about Napoleon that I’ve read. What is my point?
There’s been a change in how history is taught. It seems to me that history used to be much more about teaching through biographies and stories. Kids would soak up the material, which was replete with heroes and traitors, victors and villains. Instead of stories to learn and heroes to emulate, the teaching of history now seems to consist mostly of sterile, scientific analysis of trends and patterns at best, and bashing of Western Civilization and America through a lens of victimhood and oppression at worst.
Let’s discuss the analytical aspect first. The heart and soul has been taken out of history. If you flip through a typical college textbook on American History, you will see very little biographical information and anecdotal stories on traditional figures and even less of detailed description of battles and such. You will find new information on minority rights movements, whether it be by race, gender, or sexuality, and you will also find the emphasis has shifted from personalities to patterns, especially economic ones.
Now we should teach about slavery and the oppression of blacks, because obviously that’s a huge part of American history. The nation fought a Civil War over it, dealt with racism and segregation, and passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But what makes all of that so interesting to study is the personalities–people like Abraham Lincoln and MLK Jr.
The problem arises when historians try to paint all the rich, white, male Founders as bad people. Then you change the whole idea of America from a positive to a negative one. Much of the anti-Americanism in historiography today can be attributed to what happened in the sixties. When the Woodstock generation grew up and began to take over instruction on college campuses, a shift took place in how American history was taught. Instead of presenting America as a guardian of liberty, democracy, and the Judeo-Christian tradition, the new history sought to paint the United States as a racist oppressor. Of course, the Neo-Marxists and the Frankfurt School also had a major impact.
But I digress. My main point is not to rail against anti-Americanism, so much as it is to challenge the methods and means by which we teach history. It’s no wonder why many kids don’t want to learn history. They’re bored. They don’t care so much about knowing the economic minutia of the early colonial period or the price of cotton in the Old South, as they do about George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware at night on Christmas and his perseverance in the harsh winter of 1777-78 at Valley Forge. They want to hear about the rise of Frederick Douglas from slave to statesman, the determination of the Greatest Generation as they faced the Great Depression and World War II, and the courage of Rosa Parks as she refused to give up her seat in the “colored section” on a bus to a white passenger.
I think we could learn a few things from the emotional sensibilities of that early 19th-century movement in our jaded age. So, I say let’s get back to the heroic lessons on Washington’s character, honor, and integrity as well as the fascinating stories of Napoleon’s adventures and romances, his victories and defeats. Let’s study MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech and read again his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Let’s focus more on the personalities which make history come alive. Let’s make history great again. Or at least let’s make it interesting.