History Standards


I’ve recently been through the copy-editing stage of my new book—Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture is Good for the Economy, the Environment, and Your Soul (Basic)—and was deeply engaged by the person assigned to this thankless task.  She contained my wayward prose, to be sure, but she also fought me every step of the way on the virtues of consumer culture and the politics of Populism with substantive queries that made her sound like a colleague.  Unlike the overwhelming majority of those colleagues, at least the Americanists among them, I’m in favor of the former and skeptical of the latter.

I’m here to report on a cognate disagreement she had with me.  This one was about the historical consciousness of the American people—or the lack thereof.  It speaks directly to my differences with our discipline, and, more to the point, it speaks directly to the questions raised by a recent report on the historiographical proficiency of 12th graders.  And these are of course the questions raised by the New York Times in its last Week in Review, asking whether its most studious readers—the people who bother with the editorial pages—could pass the test given to 12th-graders and reported as a National Assessment of Education Progress.  The headline of the article could have been the title of Rick Shenkman’s book: “How Stupid Are We?”

Here’s what I wrote in the first chapter of my new book:

“And then I thought, we Americans, who are said to lack a sense of history, we actually excel at understanding backward because historical narratives are what constitute us as a people and a nation: to be an American is to argue about what it means to be an American, and the only way to get into the argument is to think historically, to figure out what “original intent,” or slavery and civil war—or corporate “persons” entitled to free speech—can mean in the present, where we live forward.

“And then, finally, I thought, OK, but maybe this historiographical excellence of ours has become a curse.  So I asked myself one more question: does our eagerness to understand backward sometimes make us prisoners of the past?”

Here’s how the copy-editor responded:

<<Au: This doesn’t ring quite true. I think it’s a rarefied few who are that contemplative or frankly even knowledgeable about original intent, etc. I think when it comes to the nuts and bolts of our early history most Americans are like the kids at the beginning of Mad Max with their shred of flag and jumbled pledge of allegiance. I agree that this historical perspective is integral to understanding if you’re motivated to understand, but I don’t buy that most Americans struggle with original intent, etc. Recast with a narrower net?>>


I’d bet that 90 percent of professional historians agree with her, and that a similar percentage of the intellectuals at large would, too.  They would agree that Americans have excelled at escaping the past rather than grasping it as the condition of innovation in the present.  And maybe they’re right.

Starting over, self-fashioning, heading for the territory, exporting the social question, put it any way you want, that frontier where the Old World doesn’t matter has always beckoned—it’s always postponed the day of reckoning with realities determined by History (by “civilization,” in Huck’s terms).  You don’t need Frederick Jackson Turner to make the case or fill out the footnote, or to accuse Americans of an “exceptionalist” faith in their exemption from historical laws of motion.  Herman Melville put it this way in Clarel, the epic poem of 1874: “The vast reserves, the untried fields,/ These shall long keep off and delay the class war,/ The rich and poor man fray.”

In the American experience, in other words, space conquered time—that frontier, that “safety valve,” did actually complicate the class struggle.  Marx said as much, and so did Achille Loria, the Italian Marxist who inspired and informed Turner’s thesis (to the point of references in the famous “Frontier” essay of 1893).   Class formation was postponed, and class consciousness was diluted, as a result of what Michael Paul Rogin, the unlikely author of a great book on Melville, called the “geographical eschatology”—a spatial imaginary, if you will—that informed the 19th-century experience of the American Adam.  Social amnesia, the strange absence of a temporal imaginary, became the condition of the American Dream: “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”

Or not.  Me, I think the problem is the professional historians and the bona fide intellectuals.  Me, I think they’re to blame for our supposed lack of historical consciousness.  I think they’re the ones who actually excel at escaping the past.  But how can that be if they’re the ones who are always complaining about their students, and always whining about the complacency of the people, who should be rising up in revolt against their corporate masters like the Machinists and the Populists and the Steelworkers did, back in the golden days of popular politics?

Here’s how.  It’s a commonplace among credentialed historians and real intellectuals that Americans can’t think straight about class.  It’s also complete bullshit.  Working people understand what and who they’re up against, but for the most part—for most of history—they’ve also been resigned to the mere fact of their subordination, because they have to make a living and they’ve already calculated the huge opportunity cost of rebellion.  They don’t speak the textbook language of class consciousness, they speak the dialect of individuals who know exactly where power lies.  Of course they want to be “middle class,” why not?  Do you want to be the subject of your employer’s whims, begging for overtime to make ends meet?  Do you actually want to be on strike?

In the late-19th century, class conflict was more persistent and violent, and class consciousness was more acute, here, in the United States, than anywhere else.  That’s why European socialists and anarchists and Marxists—including the originals, Marx and Engels—looked to the New World for a rough draft of the future.  Workers here were winning the class struggle, as any number of capitalists plainly said in the 1880s and 1890s, and as Jack London explained in novel forms in the early 20th century.  Class consciousness was just common sense for Americans—then as now.

That consciousness never disappeared in the course of the 20th century.  The very notion of “social mobility,” the antidote to class conflict, presupposes a class structure determined by social origins, but, at the same time, it plausibly maps all the usable escape routes from proletarian status—that is, from the past.  Class consciousness was modified, or rather modulated and complicated, by other forms of identification, including gender and race, beginning in the 1920s.  When the Great Depression arrived, it returned with a vengeance, again becoming the regulative principle of social relations.

But what do historians still say?  “Coulda, shoulda, woulda”: if only American workers had been more class conscious, like their European counterparts, who were storming the barricades and tearing up city streets!  But no, instead of a Labour Party, business unionism.  And then the CP got purged from the CIO, oh, the humanity, no matter that the American Left prospered in its absence, just as it had once been invigorated by its presence.  Meanwhile, what’s the matter with Kansas, anyway?  Why do all these people suffer from false consciousness?


Most historians in my experience, and this goes for the printed page as well as the classroom, teach us how to free ourselves from the dead hand of the past, not how to learn from the past.  And why shouldn’t they?  Who wants to learn from a past so disfigured by racism that it’s not even past, as Michelle Alexander argues in a thoroughly disturbing book, The New Jim Crow?  What is there to learn from the most successful capitalist society and the most aggressive imperialist nation ever?  How to save markets from the idiocies of their capitalist sponsors?  How to bend imperial privilege to the purposes of international equity?  Yeah, right.

If historians do try to teach us how to learn from the past, they typically want to return us to the militance or the intelligence or the weirdness of some exemplary past—and so the real differences between the past and the present get ignored or erased.  But either way, whether they’re freeing us from the dead hand or returning us to the Golden Day, the historical reality so conjured cannot be compared or applied to contemporary circumstances, except as congratulation (good thing we got over that) or rebuke (why aren’t we as militant or intelligent or weird as that?).

So the study of the past becomes pointless except as a way of proving that Emile Durkheim was a misogynist or that Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a racist, or . . .   You can fill in the blank.  The debunking mode lets us know that we have nothing to learn from these figures, not if we’re intent upon changing the world for the better.

We study the past, in short, to shed the baggage of previous prejudice and blindness.  No wonder our students find it boring or useless.

The exception to this rule would appear to be intellectual history.  Why would anyone study thinking from the past if they didn’t believe that, say, William James or John Dewey or Jane Addams had once had thoughts that were still useful?  Well, you might want to immunize yourself and your audience, explaining how an acceptance of their ideas implicates you in atrocities you never dreamed or willed.  You might want to exempt yourself and your audience from the stupidities of people from the past who, no matter how smart and well-educated, couldn’t have thought what you do—literally couldn’t, these thoughts would never have entered their heads.  So even in the most ancient and arcane precinct of the discipline, not to mention its very origin, we function more as predators than as cultivators: we’re here to take the giants down.


And that brings us to the Pop Quiz in the Times last Sunday: You Versus a 12th Grader.  “Only 12 percent of the nation’s high-school seniors demonstrated proficiency in the subject [of American history] last year,” the little authorless piece begins (note that it’s adjacent to the Education Jobs section that separates the news analysis from the op-eds!),  “according to the results of a test released last week, the National Assessment of Educational Progress.  Think you can do better?”

Well, no.  I can’t, and I’ve been teaching college-level students for 35 years.  The Times excerpted nine questions from the 111 given to those sorry-ass seniors.  Two of the nine begin with the same passage from the South Carolina Convention of 1832, which endorsed the nullification of the federal tariff of 1832—does anybody out there know what that was or did?—on the grounds that the United States was a diplomatic compact of competing sovereignties rather than a nation-state that was greater than the sum of its parts.

I quote the whole preamble of this pernicious document, as does the test, because it matters—to debates about slavery and the Constitution, to be sure, but also to debates about states’ rights under the thumb of the Renquist and Roberts Courts:

“We hold, that on their separation from the Crown of Great Britain, the several colonies became free and independent States, each enjoying the separate and independent right of self-government; and that no authority can be exercised over them or within their limits, but by their consent.  It is equally true, that the Constitution of the United States is a compact formed between the several States.”

Here’s the multiple choice that follows:

“This passage highlights a tension between:

a)  urban and rural interests

b)  East and West

c)  states’ rights and federal authority

d)  government economic subsidies and free enterprise.”

To which, as a tenured professor with a few books on American history under my belt, I say, “All of the above.”  Every answer is plausible, or true, or right, depending on your background and education and political propensities.  If you know anything about this moment in the development of the US, you know that (c) is probably the best answer today, but maybe not tomorrow, because (d) is a damn good one, too, except for that anachronistic phrase about enterprise, and that (a) is maybe even better because the tariff did, in fact, reward the textile industry at the expense of agriculture, especially the kind practiced in South Carolina.  And yes, (b) would work as well, because this is the moment when the South begins to understand that the “great and growing West”—what we now call the Midwest—was the key to the future of slavery: if the economic interests of that region were somehow reoriented toward the eastern seaboard via transportation that bridged the Appalachian range, slavery was at risk.

Question 6 in the Times Pop Quiz is equally vexing.  It quotes Brown v. Board of Education and then asks which precedent was overturned by this 1954 decision.  As historians we know the “right answer,” Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), but another choice is Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857).  Now Plessy was decided on 14th Amendment grounds, and that Amendment was an explicit repudiation of the infamous Dred Scott decision, so where, exactly, are we in the negation of the negation?

You get the point.  One’s deep knowledge of past events as measured by this test—or any other—doesn’t translate as an understanding of History.  And you see where I’m going with this: an understanding of History means an ability to visit a world elsewhere and return with a usable past.  The cultural function of the modern historian is to teach us how to learn from people with whom we differ due to historical circumstances, but those people include slaveholders as well as slaves, Stalin as well as Bukharin, bad guys as well as good guys.

I’m with the sorry-ass seniors who failed the test, all 88 percent of them.  I hated my required History classes in high school, and I refused to take any History course in college until a nice professor explained that I couldn’t major in English unless I took two semesters of British—notice, not American—history.


The question is, Who cares?  Why should I care that Missouri’s application for statehood caused a political crisis in 1819? (Question 4).  Why would I want to know, except that my knowledge might get me further up the road long after I finish this test?  Why do I want to know this stuff?  What is its purpose, its consequence?

Look at it from Gerrard Winstanley’s standpoint.  He was the leading spokesman, as we might now say, of the Diggers, one of many radical sects enabled by the English Revolution.  In the 1640s, when Milton was defending a free press and the right to divorce (and this while he was Cromwell’s secretary), Winstanley wrote several tracts explaining why private property rather than work or its result—knowledge of a world that could change—was the original sin.  In A New Yeer’s Gift to the Army of 1650, while trying to persuade the New Model to stick to its guns, he wrote, just in passing,  “A man knows no more of righteousnesse than he hath power to act.”

Isn’t that the most remarkably pragmatic idea you’ve ever heard?  But isn’t it also the most devastating verdict on the study of History you’ve ever encountered?

Let me translate.  A person knows no more of History than she has power to act.  I don’t want or need to know any more about the past than will inform my decisions in the present.  If you tell me the past doesn’t matter because it’s a record of broken promises, systematic cruelty, and failed dreams, or because it’s an irretrievable moment of eccentric deviations from a norm of appalling complacency, fine, fuck it.  If I can’t use it to think about the present, why should I bother?  Thanks, Doc, you convinced me that I don’t have to.

“Power to act.”  Nobody in his right mind enters the past unless he believes that his exit will make a difference in the present.  Having taught our students that a better test score—exemption in a new key—is the only difference that derives from the study of History, I have to wonder why we berate them for their studied ignorance.






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3 responses to “History Standards

  1. You’re probably aware Chris Beneke quoted this on the Historical Society’s blog today (http://histsociety.blogspot.com/ ). The Winstanley quote is brilliant. Seems to me your implication (that, in spite of its nastiness and contingency, history contains human moments that can illuminate the present and possibly inspire and instruct action) needs to be expressed — we need to convince first ourselves and then the public that history can be interesting and relevant.

  2. A tremendously provocative post, and a great deal to think about. I’ve also often wondered about historians’ insistence that Americans “can’t think straight about class”–I, too, find it not only somewhat patronizing, but also quite mistaken, at least on the question of class consciousness.

    But with regards to class reproduction, I think there might be some validity as to finding national discussions (or local discussions) either absent or lacking depth. I would argue, though, that this lack is not because of some evasive quality in “the American character,” but because the mechanisms of class reproduction–or at least the extent of their power–are often hidden or cleverly justified by those who reap their benefits. And, to extend that point a little farther, perhaps we can see this difficulty–rather than a difficulty in facing the past or accepting that we cannot escape it–as the more characteristic American encounter with History. Perhaps it is less the longing to elude History’s dead hand that produces what is identified as a lack of historical consciousness and more the persistent subtleties of class reproduction, the invisible hands that we try–and often fail–to reveal.

  3. I won’t disagree, though I think the usability of history is far from straightforward (Is Iraq like Vietnam? In what ways? The important ones or not? Was the mistake going in to Vietnam or not staying to finish the job? Why do I eat a whole bag of Snickers every Halloween?).

    Another possible answer is Gramsci’s (about dead languages): history is useless, but that’s the best thing about it, because it gives us a human field of full complexity in which to train our powers of investigation and analysis with all the dispassionate deliberation our interests and emotional commitments make so difficult in the present.

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