Is the study of history becoming, well, history?
A survey by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that “more Americans could identify Michael Jackson as the composer of ‘Beat It’ and ‘Billie Jean’ than could identify the Bill of Rights as a body of amendments to the U.S. Constitution,” “more than a third did not know the century in which the American Revolution took place,” and “half of the respondents believed the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation or the War of 1812 were before the American Revolution.” Oh, and “more than 50 percent of respondents attributed the quote, ‘From each according to his ability to each according to his needs’ to either Thomas Paine, George Washington or Barack Obama.” It used to go without saying that this was one of Bernie Sanders’s most famous lines. (Wait. I may be confused.)
This abysmal ignorance fills me with sadness — even despair. History has been my primary intellectual passion ever since, as a boy in Southern California, I began reading books on World War II and the life of Winston Churchill. At the University of California at Berkeley, my interests broadened from military history to diplomatic history and other disciplines. I was so inspired by professors such as Walter McDougall, Sheldon Rothblatt and Thomas Barnes that I enrolled in Yale’s graduate history program, where I had the privilege of studying with Paul Kennedy, Robin Winks and Michael Howard. I have gone on to a career of writing historical narratives, but even my journalistic work is always informed by my study of history.
You simply can’t understand the present if you don’t understand the past. There is no more alarming case study of the consequences of historical ignorance than President Trump. He has adopted a foreign policy mantra of “America First” seemingly without realizing (or so I hope!) that the original America First Committee of 1940-1941 was sympathetic to the Nazis. And he has embraced tariffs seemingly without being aware of the disastrous consequences of the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act.
More broadly, his appeals are steeped in misbegotten nostalgia. His slogan “Make America Great Again” implies that we must recover some lost golden age, a conceit that has been a constant of Western history since ancient Athens. Asked when America was great, Trump pointed to the early years of the 20th century and the 1940s-1950s. One wonders if he has heard of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire? Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”? The Balangiga Massacre? Lynchings? The Palmer Raids? McCarthyism? Task Force Smith? Orval Faubus? Of course, the United States did a lot of extraordinary things in the first half of the 20th century — but it was far from the paradise that Trump evokes. If Trump did understand that era, he wouldn’t be trying to undo its proudest achievements — from the Progressives’ regulation of business and protection of the environment to the Greatest Generation’s embrace of NATO and free trade.
Kids, don’t become like Donald Trump. Study history. The fact that so many Americans know so little about the past means that we as a society are vulnerable to demagogues. “Don’t know much about history” is a catchy song lyric but a dangerous motto for a democracy.
Historians may not want to admit it, but they bear some blame for the increasing irrelevance of their discipline. As historians Hal Brands and Francis Gavin argue in War on the Rocks, since the 1960s, history professors have retreated from public debate into their own esoteric pursuits. The push to emphasize “cultural, social and gender history,” and to pay “greater attention to the experiences of underrepresented and oppressed groups,” they write, has been a welcome corrective to an older historiography that focused almost entirely on powerful white men. But like many revolutions, this one has gone too far, leading to the neglect of political, diplomatic and military history — subjects that students need to study and, as enrollment figures indicate, students want to study but that universities perversely neglect. Historian Jill Lepore notes that we have ditched an outdated national narrative without creating a new one to take its place, leaving a vacuum to be filled by tribalists.
Historians need to speak to a larger public that will never pick up their academic journals — and students need to grasp the importance of studying history, not only for their own future but for the country’s, too. Don’t worry, it’s not a bad investment: History majors’ median earnings are higher than other college graduates’.