A Modest Plea for Patriotic HistoryRoundup
It is telling that those who speak loudest about Making America Great Again tend to refer to themselves as nationalists rather than patriots. George Orwell took the measure of contemporary nationalism in a 1945 essay on the subject. Nationalism, he noted, is “the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects.” Patriotism, on the other hand, is “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world.” The United States could do with more patriots and fewer nationalists.
One of the ways to grow patriots is through engagement with the past. Self-described white nationalists do not need to know anything—in fact, it is easier if they do not. It is not surprising that the chief American nationalist these days has proudly noted that he has not read a book for half a century. To understand and truly appreciate one’s own requires knowledge; to cruise the world inflaming your supporters, looking for trade fights with allies and murmuring soft words for dictators, on the other hand, ignorance does the job quite nicely.
Unsurprisingly, the events of the last two years have evoked a resurgence of interest in civic education, and particularly historical education. This is a good thing. Amid all the dismal statistics about American kids being unable to describe what is in the Bill of Rights, from which country the US won its independence, and whether Benjamin Franklin was president, there is good news. Even the usually wary Thomas B. Fordham Institute cheered the revamping of the Advanced Placement US History program by the College Board in 2014. At a grass-roots level there are a lot of teachers, school boards, and anxious parents who realize that the kids need to learn about who Americans are, how to think critically, and how democracy works.
In large measure Americans do engage with the past: They troop to Civil War battlefields and compelling historical museums. They watch New York musicals about historical figures whom previously they only vaguely recalled from the ten dollar bill. With a bit more energy they pick up books by great popular historians like David McCullough and biographers like Ron Chernow, or by academic scholars with graceful pens and vivid imaginations like James McPherson and David Hackett Fischer.
There are plenty of places to go, things to see, and books to read. But what Americans need more of is the embrace of the American past that helped them through the turmoil of the 1960’s and the sour politics and economics of the 1970’s. What is missing is, for example, the kind of writing for young people that Bennett Cerf of Random House solicited for the Landmark series that he founded in 1948, and that ran for some twenty years. He recruited top notch writers, including novelists like Dorothy Canfield Fisher, C. S. Forester, and Robert Penn Warren, and war correspondents like William Shirer, Quentin Reynolds, and Richard Tregaskis to write about epic events and personalities. It was formative reading for a lot of teens then, what a recent article in the American Historical Association’s newsmagazine, Perspectives on History, called an “icon of American history.” ...
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