History Lessons

“Since Americans have recently found it more comfortable to see where they have been than to think of where they are going, their state of mind has become increasingly passive and spectatorial. Historical novels, fictionalized biographies, collections of pictures and cartoons, books on American regions and rivers, have poured forth to satisfy a ravenous appetite for Americana. This quest for the American past is carried on in a spirit of sentimental appreciation rather than of critical analysis. An awareness of history is always a part of any culturally alert national life; but I believe that what underlies this overpowering nostalgia of the past fifteen years is a keen feeling of insecurity. . . . American history, presenting itself as a rich and rewarding spectacle, a succession of well-fulfilled promises, induces a desire to observe and enjoy, not to analyze and act. The most common vision of national life, in its fondness for the panoramic backward gaze, has been that of the observation-car platform.” – Richard Hofstadter

The introduction to Hofstadter’s classic 1948 text The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It helps remind us of the reason for reading history in the first place. While every generation probably considers itself living through an age of insecurity, when I came across this description of America’s “observation-car platform” attitude toward its past it seemed more relevant now than ever. Wasn’t the current occupant of the White House said to be reading John Adams by David McCullough – a rather sentimentally inclined historian whose only flirtations with controversy have been the result of his gilding the historical lily? And what was this news out of Texas, that has policy groups lobbying the state Board of Education over which history textbooks are to be used? According to a story in the New York Times, standard school texts regularly give history a “facelift”: “Today’s books, and standardized tests issued by the same publishers, not only portray each minority as heroic, but every group (and each sex) is airbrushed to eliminate the possibility of stereotyping.” While suggesting that there is “nothing new about this” (Hofstadter would have agreed), the story concludes by asking, “Are books now more bland and mythical than before?”

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