I am immersed in a 27 year-old book, the memoirs of Clark Clifford entitled Counsel To The President. Clifford was a Washington power broker for 40+ years between the 1940’s and the 1980’s and served many Presidents during some truly historic times…not all of them pleasurable.
At the same time that I’m reading Clifford’s book, I am conscious of the fact that I’ve become increasingly reluctant to introduce too much history into my undergraduate classes these days.
I do not know about you, but I am regularly exposed to the millennial generation through my teaching at San Diego State. I love working with these energetic young people. They keep me young at heart and constantly intellectually stimulated. BUT…I have discovered that they do not know very much about history at all…including their own as Americans. It makes me wonder what’s going on at the K-12 level because these are super sharp young adults. They are bright, industrious and surprisingly well travelled. And yet, they seem to have been denied a basic grasp of the history that earlier generations received almost as a birthright.
I have a theory about how this may have happened. But you must first travel back with me to the early 1950’s for me to explain.
In those days – I’m talking about 1950 through 1960 (my ages six through sixteen) families had no more than one television set – if they were lucky enough to have a television at all. The adults picked the programs to be viewed. I played the role of my father’s “remote,” crawling back and forth to the TV to change channels as instructed. Families also ate their evening meal together and the adults controlled the conversation. You sat up straight and spoke when spoken to.
In a system like that, history was picked up almost by osmosis. You got it at school and you were quite likely to get it at home. There were television shows like You Are There, The 20th Century, Victory At Sea and others that wrapped history up in entertaining, dramatic packages. My parents watched them all. I knew Walter Cronkite’s voice well by the time I was seven years old.
In any case, I believe that all of this historical programming – formal and otherwise – has turned out to be a useful gift and has fueled a lifetime of reading and travel.
But for today’s college students, things have evidently been very different. There were probably multiple video devices in the homes in which they grew up – with each member of the family viewing the content of their choice. Meals have also become a more fragmentary experience…eaten at different times and often on the run. History would also appear to have been de-emphasized in K-12, as government driven testing regimes have muscled out much of what used to comprise the standard grammar school curriculum. The old history “transmission belt” has apparently ceased to function.
So, what’s the big deal? Does having a sense of history really matter that much?
Here’s why I think it’s important to have at least a basic foundation of historical knowledge:
1. As Santayana observed: “Those who do not remember history are condemned
to repeat it.” If you have no context, everything seems to be happening for the first time. But, to quote another figure from the past (Harry Truman): “The only thing new under the sun is the history you don’t know.” So, just as it is with any well-adjusted adult, having a useful residue of relevant experience prepares you for the challenges that are sure to arise as you travel life’s pathway. You can learn a lot – for instance – about how to navigate a wicked problem under highly stressful conditions by studying the way JFK handled the Cuban Missile Crisis. You can also learn a lot about being painfully clear about your interests and objectives by studying how we got into – and lost – the Vietnam War. These lessons are applicable – at least by analogy – to future events.
2. In relation specifically to being a citizen of the United States, it is hard to put today’s events, personalities and issues in perspective if you have no grasp of where we’ve been in the past and how the country came to be what it is in the first place. Many current Americans would happily vote to repeal parts of the Bill Of Rights out of sheer ignorance about why those amendments were put into the Constitution. Again, this comes down to having a sense of identity and a firm grounding as a citizen of this country. Many people fought and died – and not just in our wars – to construct a country that – perhaps for the first time in the history of the world – coupled very high national aspirations along with the real possibility of their achievement. If you don’t truly value that heritage, you might passively permit it to be frittered away.
3. Here’s a more controversial reason to know your history: being grounded in who you are and how you got here can prevent the development of an unwarranted sense of “specialness.” Part of being a well-adjusted adult is having a mature grasp of your flaws as well as your strengths. Such a sense should lead to a balanced and nuanced sense of perspective and an ability to be comfortable in your own skin despite the awareness of being imperfect. What makes the United States unique is not some cosmic form of perfection: it is that collection of values and aspirations, which we have fought to pursue and to honor despite our flaws. Today’s constant braying about American exceptional-ism by our politicians sounds to me less like a call to justifiable collective pride than the chronic interior dialogue of the deeply insecure.