Today there was yet another story about a college out west somewhere that planned to dismember and bury its history department. The removal of any history requirement from the college curriculum is so common place now that only rather obscure academic journals pay much attention to it. One of the final candidates in the run off election to be in charge of the schools in Texas is apparently a woman determined to bring her belief in creationism, biblical literalism, and general historical bunkum to all the school books in Texas: not they don’t have a running head start on the task already. Here in Maine, one of the first things accomplished when the University of Southern Maine decided to turn itself into a trade school was to kill off the graduate degree program in American History.
Granted, I have a bias here as someone who reads history books and enjoys them. There is a kernel of truth in the cliche if you don’t learn about the mistakes we have made in the past then you are bound to repeat them. I mean really, did no one else cringe when they saw Donald Trump tell an audience in Florida to raise their right arm and swear to vote for him in the Florida Presidential primary? Are the hundreds of visual images of Adolph Hitler at the Nuremberg rallies so far in the past, so forgotten, that having a crowd of cheering people raising their right arms to shout out an oath of loyalty to a political figure is no longer a deeply disturbing image? How can any person running for President be so historically ignorant or simply obtuse as to not understand this symbolism?
This removal of history from the day to day understanding of what is going on around us is another part of the continuing dumbing down of our contemporary information culture. The vast majority of our printed news and information delivery systems, TV, newspapers, magazines and even many of our books, are written with the assumption that the readers read and comprehend at some lower grade school level. Once upon a time Americans complained about how the talking heads of public discussion spoke such intellectual goobly gook, using obscure words and ideas, that no one could understand them. Now the talking heads speak their gobbly gook in simplistic cliches trying very hard never to use words with more than two syllables – assuming they know any words with more than two syllables. We are learning less and gathering less understanding about what is going on around us now. We don’t have to reach to try to understand because our so-called leaders have decided we don’t understand, or want to understand, much of anything anyway. We just want be given the chance to scream and yell in our mindless ignorance or patted on the head and told to go to bed.
Then, of course, there is communication and information gathering on the internet. Thoughts expressed in forty words or less analyzing whether or not we should build a fence to protect us from Mexico, or for that matter, coming to serious conclusions about whether or not our children should be required to read American History in high school. Seldom if ever have we confronted more complex problems and issues than we do today in a culture of instantaneous communication, the demand for absolute safety that we seem to assume is our right, overlaid with hysterical demands from the left and the right asserting that it is their standards, and their standards only, that may be used to analyze our life and times. Our loss of historical insight reduces the base on which we can have even our limited discussion of how to deal with the difficult, complex issues we face.
Americans have from the start of our country been particularly ambivalent about history. A good part of this comes from our role as the first functioning democratic republic in modern history. As Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Marshall made up things as they went along on how to create a democratic republic that would work, and succeeded, they created a sense of exceptionalism and separation from the history of Western Europe that we have never gotten over. We separated ourselves from the history of our European, aristocratic roots and brought that separation into our relation with our own history. A good thing to keep in mind here is that Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Marshall were steeped in historical knowledge. In great part the created the new by knowing, understanding and learning from the old.