Politics & Policy

Don’t Know Much About History

A national shame.

The real star of this election isn’t Sarah Palin — it’s history. In both party conventions, history was celebrated as a very special guest. This election, we were told, will make history. Indeed, it is the most important election in history. Both parties claimed that history was on their side — which means that neither of them can lose. History will remember that it was on this very day that (fill in the blank). If there is one thing that politicians love to talk about — it’s history.

And with good reason. History is a good teacher. You know the old saying: Those who forget the mistakes of the past are, um, well, I forget. But it’s bad, that’s for sure. And history is not only a teacher, but a pretty good entertainer too. Just click on the History Channel or browse through your local bookstore and you’ll see what I mean.

#ad#Which brings up an interesting question: If history is such a good teacher, why do we teach so little of it to our young?

Take, for example, history’s place in America’s higher education. Many institutions that are training tomorrow’s leaders don’t seem to think that history is just what they need. At Princeton, for example, those who receive A.B. degrees need take only one course in history — any history. Bachelor of Science students at Princeton can skip history altogether. So can those at Yale. At least Harvard requires its undergraduates to take a pre-modern history course. But that is rare. It’s increasingly difficult today to find a college or university that requires students to study Antiquity, or the Middle Ages, or the Renaissance, or anything at all that occurred before the students’ own short lives.

The problem dates back to the 1960s, when core-curriculum/general-education requirements at many schools were loosened up to make way for more freedom, which ultimately meant more courses in the major. After all, if someone comes to college to study engineering, why should he or she have to study the Hittites? I have listened to my share of parents outraged that their pre-med child is failing my history course. Why, they ask, does a doctor (or engineer, or lawyer, or journalist, or whatever) need to know history? It has no bearing on their lives at all and simply gets in the way of courses that do matter.

Sadly, too many colleges and universities have come to agree with those parents. The end result is a history-education vacuum in America. We have become a society with no long-term memory. We keep discovering anew what we have encountered many times before. For too many Americans, the lessons of the past are restricted to the tiny portion of it with which they have personal experience.

Think about it. During the national debates on the war on terror, lessons from history were as thick in the air as rocket-propelled grenades in Iraq. Liberals launched salvos of Vietnam, arguing that Iraq and Afghanistan were unwinnable quagmires. Conservatives fired back with World War II, insisting that appeasement only emboldens the enemy.


Yet both of those wars are still within living memory. They occurred within the last few seconds of recorded history’s day. What about the rest of human experience? Relying on recent events to teach us historical truths is a perilous business. History needs room — lots of room — for perspective. Divining lessons from the experiences of the last few generations is like describing a Monet landscape with one’s nose touching the canvas. Those colors and dabs are pretty, but they just won’t make sense until you back up and experience them from a distance.

That doesn’t mean that lessons should not be drawn from World War II or Vietnam. But it does mean that we should do so within the context of the rest of history. We need the big picture. And that is just what is disappearing from our schools. No wonder, then, that current challenges like the war on terror are forcibly jammed into the mold of the last century’s wars. We simply don’t remember anything else. Could the ancient Roman experience with Jewish extremist terrorism have any lessons for Americans prosecuting a war against Islamic extremism? Could the Hellenistic Greek response to Roman hegemony help us understand European attitudes toward America’s position as the world’s lone superpower? Who knows? Who cares? After all, that’s “ancient history.” The Founding Fathers believed that an education grounded in the Classics (read in Latin!) was an essential foundation for good citizenship. Today that’s just trivia — useful for winning on Jeopardy! — but not much else.

#ad#The good thing about history, though, is that it doesn’t go away. Just because schools are disinterested in it doesn’t mean that it’s not available for those who are interested. Indeed, there are an increasing number of professional historians willing to venture outside the ivory tower to write understandable history for a general audience. One thinks of Donald Kagan, Niall Ferguson, Bernard Lewis, and Victor Davis Hanson, among others. Often dismissed as “popularizers” by their colleagues, these scholars endure the rolled eyeballs of the academy in order to teach those parts of history that we should all have learned in school.

Put a nickel in a jar every time you hear the phrase, “History teaches/shows us that . . . ,” and watch your savings grow. There is no question that history remains the star of political speeches, talk shows, stage, and screen. It’s a shame that it has such a bit part in America’s higher-education institutions.

– Thomas F. Madden is professor of history and director of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Saint Louis University (a school that requires pre-modern history for its undergraduates). His most recent book is Empires of Trust: How Rome Built — And America is Building — A New World.

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