Here is a little parable:
The last combatants of World War II are disappearing. The last survivors of Auschwitz are mostly dead. Those who survived American slavery are long gone. Bit by bit, our links to significant episodes of human existence are dissolving. That has always been the case. But not always with the same stark consequences of forgetting.
What is it that does bind my generation to another’s past? Or to generations younger than mine? What is the substance and character of this binding? My parents were of immigrant families, from North Europe, and from Jewish and Catholic families. I heard the stories of the old country and the old country repositioned in America, of my great-grandfather’s work with the Czar’s cavalry, and the uniform he brought with him to Chicago; of old schools run by nuns, of poor farms and mud. My connections here were real, as would be the connections I’ve cultivated with the history of Christianity, of Catholicism, Anglicans and Anglican mission, of Africa. I never felt particularly tied to Jefferson or Grant. They were someone else’s history.
I remember when I first took my children to the Denver Art Museum years ago — on one floor, we were introduced to the world of Mayan Shamans, their music, ritual instruments, stories and dances, which we were told we should strive to “enter into and learn from.” Two floors above, we walked through a resplendent exhibition covering 600 years of British painting. Particular historical grids that a person carries with them might help one make the passage from one world into the other. But in this museum context, a context that reflects much of our intelligent society, there is no such grid provided, and my children themselves have none.
The issue of such a grid of continuity, one that we or some group can hold in common, is in part what is at stake in the many “culture wars” of our era. In today’s vicious sectarian polarizations, do Americans have a common and identifiable formative history? Dare we even imagine one?
Beginning in the mid-1970’s, a series of national tests showed that most highschoolers have only the most limited of common intellectual content at their disposal — only 8% of them today know that slavery was at the center of the Civil War. Then again, less than a quarter of high-end college graduates know who James Madison was. Hardly anybody who did not live through it can identify Watergate. Every survey shows worsening scores. I have surveyed textbooks from various sides of the educational debate surrounding how to teach history, and it seems that forming a vision of overarching and uniting historical knowledge for a common culture is proving to be a losing battle. Most Americans have not been persuaded that that having such a vision is an important goal, let alone what ought to guide it.
Why don’t Americans have a sense of history? I can identify a few causes.
First, there is the anti-historical character of the American enterprise itself. This is a well-worn observation — we are a country and culture of the “new,” not of the “old.” De Tocqueville noted this not long after our Revolution. Our anti-historicalism is based on two strands at the root of American traditions, one putatively “moral,” the other “religious.”
Our political revolution, however you interpret its philosophical hue, established a conscious break with the historical traditions of Europe for a moral purpose. Thomas Paine’s notorious attack on Christianity in the late 18th Century was based, in large measure, on Christianity’s captivation to the past, and its purported enslavement of the “scientific” spirit. The problem with learning “dead” languages, like Latin and Greek, he argued, was not the languages themselves, but the fact that they were “dead,” and hence not part of the ongoing newness of practical discovery. Most Americans agreed with Paine on this score. Unlike England or France, America never has had (until very recently) an intellectual school that explored the nature and importance of “tradition.” In fact, “tradition” was from the beginning associated with Catholicism, obscurantism, and oppression.
Obviously, classics were taught in America (to a very few), and were, to various degrees, part of the university curriculum. The rationale for this was not cultural, however. Learning languages, instead, was like memorizing long poems: it was a good “mental discipline” that was designed to prepare minds for practical professions and concerns of life, like accounting and business. Well into the 19th-century, historical studies were judged suspect at many universities, including Yale, mostly for religious reasons. Noah Porter, a President of Yale and a clergyman, had proclaimed that “the history of thought and speculation [is] the history of confusion and error.” Historical scholarship itself did not flower in America until the later 19th-century, and when it did, it remained a highly ghettoized project — essentially “high culture” in social-economic terms — that had little impact on our larger culture. What was taught in schools, in terms of history, were a set of moralized set pieces in historical dress, famous from the many editions of McGuffey’s Reader.
Alongside political anti-historicalism, a religious counterpart was at work, and the two were really joined in the majority American intellectual perspective. Before the Revolution, varied Protestant immigrations were based on a theology of history that pilloried the past and, in extreme Puritan forms, saw America as a “last stand” in a divine world. Protestantism is essentially anti-historical, because the past of the Church is primarily Catholic, and hence corrupt. In America, this is exaggerated by deep apocalyptic themes that valorize the immediacy of the future as the main defining element of the present.
Even today, among many Evangelical groups, the reality of the American Revolution and founding episodes of our country’s history are appealed to, not in historical terms, but as types that explicate a particular divine plan for the future that is imminently to be accomplished. There is no interest in exploring, for instance, the Masonic context of our Founding Fathers’ experience, when Masonry and American “values” stand in opposition as allegories for our present moment, and not as realities of the past to be understood in their own terms.
Protestantism and Revolution came together in their denigration of the past. The local “common school” movement that grew from this marriage had little interest in history (though much in morals and faith). America’s defining social elements remained trade and the frontier, which allowed for the flourishing of isolated social communities — larger historical connections were simply irrelevant there — and encouraged connections with the world that would be based on little besides interchangeable objects of commerce. By the time rich Americans began to travel in the late 19th century, the categories by which they could grasp the rest of the world lay primarily in the realm of accumulation and collection. Meanwhile immigrant communities guarded their own diverse and non-intersecting traditions tightly.
Without an ordering vision of history (i.e., tradition) the past in America has existed mostly in terms of objects and artifacts, to be traded or collected. The deep character of American economic practicality, joined with innovation, has rendered the words “past” and “obsolete” almost synonymous. Americans have a mania for “collection,” and by the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this blossomed into the public “museum” movement that was unique among Western nations. The rich bought, displaced, traded, collected, and bequeathed. But there is no better example of the past being truly “dead,” in Paine’s phrase, than its encasement as discarded objects in artifactual mortuaries — i.e., museums. The past is useless in this regard, except in terms of its commercial tradability and accumulation.
I remember an antique store I visited once in San Antonio: it was filled with 18th-century Mexican religious paintings, bought from churches (or church thieves), sacramental ornaments, statuary, devotional artifacts stripped from village homes, washbasins, relics, kitchen cabinets, old swords, woven table cloths — all lying beside one another, for thousands of dollars, to be inserted into someone else’s American home. Not just material objects, but also music, ideas, practices, have been subjected to the same forces. It is what one critic called the transformation of “history” to commercial “heritage.” Curiously, we have seen a positive embrace of Paine’s dictum: we collect the past, just because it is dead, and has no relevance, and can therefore be manipulated at will.
The third factor that may lie behind America’s lack of history is the information explosion (which began long before the computer’s advent). It, too, is tied to the proliferation of identified artifacts of knowledge from the past, as well as to America’s culture of invention and accumulation. The strange phenomenon in America today, in which more books are being written and bought privately than ever before, though fewer are actually being read, and in which libararies have now begun to reverse a trend in acquisitions in large part because of the limits of storage — this is only one symptom among many of a developing incapacity to cope with burgeoning available data. It is an incapacity whose direct bearing on the practice of developing historical traditions is both obvious and little appreciated in its shackling influence.
Quite simply, it is now no longer possible in any literal sense to know enough about any aspect of the past to be able to promote a convincing picture of it that could possibly compel a synthetic vision of the larger culture. One hears people decry the loss of narrative history as a discipline, or bemoan the fragmentation of historical scholarship into myriads of dispersed specialties, but this is the inevitable result of the proliferation of knowledge itself, which has surpassed the ability of any one person or group of persons to comprehend as a whole. In fact, any claim to such comprehension is, perhaps rightly, now viewed with suspicion as an ideological ploy, and is, in any case, always refutable.
One person’s or group’s historical “heritage” is another’s oppressive curse, and both have evidence to support their judgments. Wikipedia is not just an online encyclopedia; it is an online arena or colosseum. It is no surprise that some philosophical epistemologists now argue for historical skepticism as a foundational principle.
There are two classical purposes that have been asserted for learning history. First, the study of history helps us know who we are. Second, the study of history helps us know who we are not to be. Herodotus might be an exemplar of the first view, and Thucydides — who first spoke of ignorance condemning us to history’s repetition — might be an exemplar of the second. The two purposes are, of course, related, and lead to a final purpose: to learn who we are meant to be. But having consciously excised the past in America, and now become prey to the past’s incapacity to be grasped, there is little means to distinguish good and bad within the past; and hence no way to know our calling.
Cromwell, Napoleon, and Eva Peron; or Elizabeth, Robespierre, and Churchill, each become interesting as curiosities, and are thus on a level. To retrieve the classical purposes of historical knowledge may perhaps require both a questioning of the American revolutionary identity and an intellectual struggle against the convincing claims of pluralistic skepticism. None of this is likely to take place except in a context of extraordinary crisis.
As I said, this reflection on history in America is but a parable, and one for the Church. Christians too have lost their sense of history, perhaps through the same cultural pressures as everybody else. But that history is far more important and far more true than all the narratives of America or of the world could ever be. This should be a warning.
The Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College in Toronto.