The Disuniting of America

An interesting article I read not too long ago describes some problems with the study of history in the United States today.

The author starts by describing a recent case heard by Montana’s Supreme Court. The court upheld the state constitution’s ban on corporations donating directly to political campaigns. In order to justify its decision, the justices cited many works of history in order to recreate the thinking of the time period in which the ban was instituted, which was almost 100 years ago. As a history teacher, it is good to see courts using history to come to what seems like a just ruling.

However, according to the author, most of the books to which the justices referred were all published before 1977. The reason, according to him, is that books of political history have been hard to come by since that time. Instead, the study of history has been dominated by gender and race. To him, this is an unmitigated tragedy and a blow to the more traditional historical concentrations, like politics, war and foreign relations.

My own feelings on this issue are mixed. History, by its definition, tends to be a conservative field of study. I remember the tragedy of 9/11 taking place during my second year as a history teacher. People were walking around saying “this is the worst day in American history”. Although their feelings were justified given the magnitude of the tragedy, I thought back to things like Pearl Harbor or the Battle of Antietam and realized that there were days when our country had it worse. 9/11 was certainly the defining tragedy of our era, sort of Generation X’s version of the Kennedy assassination, but I will never concede that it was the worst day in our history.

Because history tends to be conservative, it is true that high school and college curriculums used to focus on the doings of dead white men. In order to counterbalance this, the 1960s and 1970s saw a new wave of historians, writers and researchers focused more and more on the struggles of ethnic minorities and women. The pinnacle of this movement is probably represented by Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. A walk through the history section of the bookstore, or a quick scan of history classes offered at universities, shows a thriving movement of historical study as seen through the lens of minorities and women.

On the one hand, I believe this movement was necessary because minorities and women were indeed made invisible in the history curricula of old. On the other hand, I sympathize with the sentiments of those who believe that the ethnic and gender movement in historical study has gone too far. The people who believe that it has gone too far are not all right-wingers either. The eminent historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. wrote a book entitled The Disuniting of America towards the end of his life where he bemoaned what ethnic and gender studies have done to history. More recently, one of my favorite historians,  and probably the greatest living expert on early American history, Gordon Wood, has made no secret of his distaste for the same. Conservatism cuts in many ways. Both of these men, while sensitive to the need to include minorities and women in all historical accounts, are merely defending what they see as the dissolution of the traditions that have made history a valuable subject and art form.

A story from my own experience can perhaps demonstrate what these scholars are criticizing. Years ago I had to take one of those graduate level education classes for my permanent state license. Most of my classmates were elementary school teachers in their early-mid twenties, most of them women. One of our assignments required us to give a presentation of a unit we would teach to our classes. One of my aforementioned elementary school teacher classmates gave a presentation about a unit on early American history. I do not remember all of what she presented. What I do know is that, over and over and over again, she said to us “and the Founding Fathers got their idea of the Constitution from the Iroquois.” or “did you know that it was the Iroquois who gave the Founding Fathers the idea for the Constitution?” She said it with rapt enthusiasm. You could tell that she expressed the same type of enthusiasm when she taught it to her own students.

Whenever students come into my class with plain wrong ideas of American history that they picked up from elementary and junior high school, I always think about that teacher. She was referring to the Iroquois Confederacy and how it bears resemblance to the federalist structure of the Constitution, or the division of powers between state and federal government. This was a popular thesis during the 1980s, a time when many ethnic and gender reinterpretations of American history were coming out. Here is the problem: there is not one shred of evidence to conclude that the Founders were at all inspired by the Iroquois. Now, this does not mean that the Iroquois did not have an enlightened and effective system of decision-making, one that united many tribes of the northeast United States. It simply means that there is no evidence of direct influence of the elegant system of the Iroquois on our own elegant system.

The Founders who were at the Constitutional Convention bequeathed to us thousands of pages of writings: transcripts from the convention, newspaper articles debating pros and cons of specific measures and personal correspondences. Together, they give us a wonderful glimpse into the time period. This means not only the things they debated, but the assumptions they held. A close reading gives us a sense of the intellectual universe they shared. One thing is painfully clear from their writings: they moved in an intellectual universe that was heavily European. James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, buried himself in histories of ancient Greece and Rome, as well as studies of British common law and the British constitution (which is not a written constitution as we know it), in order to prepare himself for the Constitutional Convention. He was also intimately familiar with the workings of each colonial government, which themselves were heavily influenced by England. Furthermore, the Founders shared the European arrogance towards Native Americans in thinking they were savages with very little to contribute to civilized life, including the workings of civilized government. In short, not only were the Founders not inspired by the Iroquois Confederacy, they had no motivation to be inspired by them.

This is where Schlesinger and Wood believe the ethnic and gender movement in history has gone too far. In a mad dash to give a more prominent place to groups who have traditionally been ignored, our bookshelves and our curricula have been littered with specious and questionable historical theories. By teaching her students that the Iroquois influenced the Founding Fathers, that teacher gave her students an incorrect impression of American history. While we as teachers of inner city students might feel a need to make minorities and women an important part of our curriculum, we also have to keep in mind that the end goal of history is not to boost self-esteem. We merely cannot pervert and distort facts to come to wrong conclusions just to make ourselves and our students feel good about themselves. By doing this, we lose the art, the interpretation and the pursuit of truth that the study of history is meant to be.

In fact, there is no need at all to lie or distort history to give women and minorities a prominent role. Any history teacher that knows the subject will be easily able to provide examples of the contributions of all types of groups to the American story. Lying or stretching the truth only ends up doing a disservice. It is intellectually dishonest. Even worse, what if the student later finds out the truth about a lie they were taught about a woman or minority group? The damage can have long-lasting impacts.

The bright side is that there are still political, military and diplomatic histories out there. They are tougher to find for sure, but these traditional histories are still around for anyone determined enough to track them down. What is more, owing to the push for greater inclusion since the 1970s, these more traditional types of histories are sure to have the women and minority characters that histories of a previous era might have lacked. Gordon Wood himself is a prime example. His breathtaking renditions of early American history seamlessly include the roles of dead white men and women, as well as those dead people of color. Looking at most of the histories associated with the Oxford History of the United States, I would say most of them do the same thing. What Hath God Wrought by Daniel Walker Howe is especially adept at weaving the experiences of white men, upper class women, free blacks, enslaved southerners, Native Americans and Hispanics into an era of American history that has traditionally been associated with one racist white man: Andrew Jackson.

Students often ask me “when are we going to learn about my people?” This is the type of divisive tribalism that has been engendered by the overreach of the ethnic and feminist movements in the study of history. There is so much I want to say to the student who says this. “Why don’t you study it yourself?”, “who are your people?”  or “what does it mean to have a people?” However, what I often say is “all people are our people”. Anyone who has read history to any extent realizes that it is impossible to separate these people from those people. There are usually six degrees of separation between any two cultures. Somewhere along the way, cultures have borrowed ideas, goods and practices from other cultures, who have adapted it from other cultures. It is common for a student from, say, Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic to blurt out “what were my people doing at this time?” when studying ancient Rome. They are shocked to hear that Puerto Rican or Dominican culture as they know it was still a long way off from being forged. That lesson will have to wait until Columbus’ major mistake of 1492.

I fear that this is one of the destructive legacies of the ethnic and feminist movement in history. As the title of Schlesinger’s book, The Disuniting of America, suggests, studying history in this way encourages us to see people as part of an identity. We atomize history into black history, feminist history, Hispanic history, Asian-American history and we lose sight of the fact that we inhabit this country and this planet together. Critics like to call people who study history in this manner “Marxist”, but I doubt Marx or any champion of the working class would approve of dividing people in this way. I would label this merely “liberal” because it is in step with the identity and culture war politics in which elitist liberals of today excel. It is a great way to get the poor classes to divide from each other, argue over what group gets which month and take our minds off of the class oppression that transcends all ethnic and gender identities.

This brings me to another point made in the article I cited in the beginning. The author bemoans how university history departments across the country hire a disproportionate number of Democrats. How he can be sure that this is the case is beyond me. I will concede, however, that most historians I know of and read seem to have a leftist bent. The author ascribes this to discriminatory hiring practices. For my part, I think things are a lot less sinister. Quite simply, historical facts tend to have a leftist bias. As I have heard others express it before, “facts tend to lean to the left.”

It is tough to imagine how one can call themselves an historian and a Republican in 2012. Being a Republican today not only requires the traditional GOP faith in markets and the private sector, but it requires an entire reading of American history that bears no resemblance to any history book I know of. What historian is going to believe, in good conscience, that the Founding Fathers were Christian fundamentalists  who believed cutting taxes for the wealthy and allowing corporations to do as they please was the “American way”? In Nixon’s era, it was possible for one to be an historian and a Republican, since the GOP had yet to go off the deep end at that point. Today, however, you either know something about American history, or you are a Republican/Libertarian.

During the 1970s, well after the protests of the 60s had revealed that the intelligentsia was overwhelmingly leftist, wealthy right-wing interests established an entire infrastructure of their own dedicated to spinning an alternate reality. This included the creation of private colleges dedicated to the teachings of right-wing extremism, like Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. It also included the establishment of think-tanks dedicated to spinning an entire web of right-wing reality, like the Heritage Foundation. These organizations were established because it was feared that the leftist intelligentsia had a hold on the minds of youngsters. During the 1970s, progressive government had been in the saddle for decades, or so they seemed to believe. The youth of tomorrow promised to imbibe the leftist program thanks to liberal universities, then they would go on to be tomorrow’s leftist voters. There needed to be an alternative way of seeing history and public policy, one that could compete with the leftists who controlled the education system. This movement to establish a parallel, conservative universe has been wildly successful. It has been one of the major reasons why ultra-conservative government has been in the saddle since Reagan.

So I believe it when the author of the article says that leftists are in history departments across the country. Liberal arts departments are some of the only places where leftists can wield any type of influence any more. The halls of government are cut off to them, as are the major media outlets. Sadly, the defunding of state universities and the paltry opportunities people have to make a living with liberal arts degrees are choking off even this small enclave for leftists.

What all of this represents, from the way we study history to the way universities hire, is a fracturing of America’s social fabric. The culprits are liberals who partake in identity politics and conservatives who live in a hermetically sealed fantasy world.

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2 responses to “The Disuniting of America

  1. Michael Fiorillo

    Unfortunately, the “leftist” bent in academia seenin the post New Deal era is probably the exception, not the rule. This will accelerate as humanities departments are cut back or eliminated, to be replaced by business and vocationally-oriented courses of study financed by business interests.

    In the early 20th century, it was common for college students, especially Ivy Leaguers, to be used as strikebreakers. Ralph Fasanella’s painting of the Lawrence, Mass. textile strike shows the state militia marching into the city to break the strike, and little boys standing on the sidewalk holding signs saying, “Go to School.” While the meaning of that may be unclear to us today, t was very clear to the strikers and their supporters then: it was Harvard and Northeastern students who made up that strikebreaking force, a common event at that time.

    Today, universities are still cranking out union busters: the Harvard School of Education and the Kennedy School of Government are busy turning out (so-called) meritocratic cadre to privatize the schools, and Stanford pumps out entrepreneurs who are busy trying to impose that model on public education, and schools around the country have academics for hire, who will provide “scientific” research for the highest bidder showing the benefits of corporate control of the schools.

    Perhaps the schools were more progressive in the previous era because labor was a stronger force in society, and with the decline of labor, and an ever shrinking percentage of the national income going to working people, the Overclass has been able to re-establish its control over higher education and turn it into yet another vehicle for its profit and control of society.

    I know this comment is a departure from the main theme of your post, but I think it’s important for people not to over idealize the role of academia in left history and practice. I do agree with you, however, that the disproportionate focus on identity politics, at precisely the time when class conflict was reassertimg itself so aggressively, has been detrimental to defending living standards and democracy.

    • Your point is well taken and I agree. During the summer, the ranks of the Pinkertons were swelled with college students who needed a few bucks in their off time. Most of the Pinkertons during the Homestead Strike were green college students, which helps account for the cowardly and unsure way they handled things.

      The liberal bent we see in universities today is usually seen in the humanities, especially history and literature. Business, finance and economics departments, which are perhaps the most sough-after departments in the universities, tend to be bastions of fiscal conservatism, especially at places like the University of Chicago. As you have pointed out, power think tanks shower these professors with grant money to conduct research that comports with Neoliberal ideology. They are part of this edifice that conservatives have created over the past 35 years.

      This helps explain, I think, the shrinking prestige and relevance of humanities in today’s world. Because conservatives have been in the saddle for so long, they have made a world where the humanities are a fossilized curiosity rather than a viable way of life. As of now, the humanities is an increasingly shrinking island of liberal influence.

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