Why Study History?

As liberal Democrats for the most part, United States historians have no doubt been having a field day with Donald Trump’s recently reported clueless comments on United States history.  The president’s moronic take on the nation’s past was front-page news last Tuesday in liberals’ and academics’ favorite newspaper, The New York Times.  Times reporters Peter Baker and Jonah Engel Bromwich told readers about Trump’s historical idiocy, seen in the president’s:

+ Suggestion that Andrew Jackson had been “really angry”about the Civil War, which did not break out until 16 years after his death.

+ Assertion that the Civil War could have been prevented by smart policymakers who should have just gotten together and cut a deal.

+ Apparent belief that the great 19th century Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass is still alive.

+ Apparent surprise at learning that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican.

+ Putting up a golf course plaque marking a Civil War battle that never happened.

The Times quoted Princeton “presidential historian” Julian E. Zelizer, who thinks that “Presidents should have some better sense of the nation’s history as they become part of it.”

Historian Paul Starobin told the Times that “Trump seems almost uniquely ill equipped to process history, whether because of his lack of empathy, his allergy to complexity, or his tendency to keep distant from anything that might carry the whiff of defeat…History is not tidy. Trump likes tidy. He likes slogans. History doesn’t offer any.”

So, yes, Trump is a dummy about American history, too. I could almost hear the sneers and chuckles across the faculty rooms in academic history departments from coast to coast.

United States of Amnesia

Great, but once they’re done laughing at Dunce Cap Donald, the nation’s academic historians might want to reflect on the broader and unsettling historical ignorance that stalks the United States – and their own roles in enabling it.

Trump is of course E plurbius unum – “one of many” (the traditional motto of the United States) – when it comes to historical amnesia in the U.S.  U.S.-of-Americans live and think in chilling accord with the vicious anti-Semitic U.S. capitalist Henry Ford’s famous dictum that “history is bunk.”  They go through life in mass cluelessness about the millennia, epochs, centuries, generations, and decades that preceded them.  They know little about the relevance of the past to their contemporary experience and the future.  The whole nation seems “almost uniquely ill equipped to process history, whether because of [its] lack of empathy, [its] his allergy to complexity, or [its] tendency to keep distant from anything that might carry the whiff of defeat.”

It’s a very lethal way for a Superpower’s citizenry to carry on.

History is a Weapon

Part of this mass national memory loss has to do with the United States’ status as historical ground zero for the art and science of corporate and imperial thought control – something that Alex Carey wrote about darkly and brilliantly in his posthumously published book Taking the Risk of Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty (1997)  (See especially the first chapter, titled “The Origins of American Propaganda”). As George Orwell knew, the deletion, distortion, dismissal, and devaluation of history is a critical dimension of thought control.  “Who controls the past,” the reigning totalitarian party portrayed in Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 (flying off bookstore and library since Big Brother Donald’s election) proclaimed, “controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

It’s not for nothing that the record and meaning of the past is butchered by ruling “elites.”

History properly and deeply understood is profoundly dangerous to authority. Consistent with Santayana’s oft-quoted remark that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” it warns us about past mistakes.  National leaders’ remarkably recurrent faith in splendid little wars that will be concluded quickly with little human cost is one among many examples.

It raises alarms and teaches lessons about the folly of imperial and environmental overreach and the related terrible consequences of the excessive concentration of wealth and power.

It counsels us not to repeat past crimes (not merely mistakes) like slavery, colonialism, genocide, and fascism.

It catalogues, frames, and explains horrors that should never be allowed to recur.

It tells remarkable and inspiring stories of poplar resistance, rebellion, and revolution – of people making history from the bottom up, with radical and egalitarian ideals and movements ruling classes and “power elites” natural want consigned to “the memory hole” (Orwell’s phrase).

It is full of lessons about how ruling classes and power elites rule and how ordinary people and activists have confounded masters.

It tells us that humanity survived and often thrived for most of its experience without the hierarchical class structures of capitalism.

It reminds us that the “modern” (and yet pre-historic) bourgeois mode of social and political relations is historically specific and transient, not the “end of history” or the logical destination or culmination of “human nature.” (This helps us imagine and work for a different and much less stratified and destructive society in the present and future).

It points to contingency and alternatives, reminding us that significant, even revolutionary historical change is possible and related to human agency, both individual and collective.

It takes us to the developmental taproots of contemporary problems like sexism, classism, racism, imperialism, militarism, and ecocide, showing how and why all of these evolved over time out of decisions and paths taken by human beings, not the mysterious workings of some dark, all-powerful deity and/or “human nature” – or some other form of imposed destiny. (How understand contemporary racial inequality and oppression in the U.S. with no grasp of the origins, nature, and consequences of Black chattel slavery in British Colonial North America and the United States through the Civil War?)

It helps us recognize and identify deadly developments in the present. It’s useful to know what classic fascism was in Italy and Germany as a neofascist president holds power in the U.S. and as neofascists like Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders vie for power in Western Europe. Those who don’t know what fascism was and how and why it arose in the 20th century may be condemned to live under a 21st century version of it today.

Just When and How Was “America Great”?

Historical knowledge gives us benchmarks to evaluate elite claims of “progress” and/or “decline.”  How do you know if things are really getting better or worse in the long durée (the long run) if you don’t know what existed before?

It would be good to know a thing or two about American history when a neofascist president comes to power promising to “Make America Great Again.”

Just what part of America’s “great” past do Trump and his backers most want to restore – when children toiled in coal mines and textile mills?

When Black people were tortured and exploited under the savage regimes of chattel slavery?

The Jim Crow years, which included Black disenfranchisement, strict racial segregation, and savage anti-Black violence in the South through the 1960s?

When women couldn’t vote and were expected to remain in their homes and died in back-alley abortions? When single adult women were pitied as “old maids”?

When gay people were beaten and consigned to the closet?

When Chinese people were beaten in the Western United States because of their race? When Japanese Americans were herded into internment camps?

When left union organizers and political activists were taken out into the desert and left to die? When armed Pinkertons and state militias beat and shot union organizers?

When labor organizers and intellectuals were fired, blacklisted, jailed, imprisoned, and shamed for holding (or allegedly holding) left views?

When white North American settlers butchered Native Americans and pushed them off their ancestral lands to make way for slave plantations and commodity farming?

When the United States criminally and unnecessarily atom-bombed two cities in the already defeated nation of Japan?

When the U.S. crucifixion of Southeast Asia liquated as many as 5 million people in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia?

Decoding Propaganda

Done well, history helps us de-code propaganda by providing us with an informational basis with which to respond to the remarkable extent to which American rulers rely on historical narratives and claims to sell their policies and doctrines idea even in a nation famous for not knowing or caring about history.  It’s helpful to know a thing or two about what the nation’s profoundly anti-democratic and aristocratic Founders were really all about the next time you hear some politician invoke them to advance or oppose some policy or candidate in the name of democracy.

It useful to know a thing or two about German fascism and the rise and conduct of Hitler and the Nazi Party the next time some U.S. politician or talking head designates yet another foreign leader in Uncle Sam’s gunsights as the next “Hitler.”

It’s useful to know a thing about the long and ugly history of state-capitalist oppression within and beyond the United States the next time some politician or talking head tries to convince you that unleashing “the free market” and reducing regulation of Big Business yet more is the way to serve the common good.

It’s useful to know a thing or two about what the U.S. military and intelligence have done to Native Americans, Filipinos, Haitians, Dominicans, Mexicans, Central Americans Vietnamese, Japanese, Iraqis and so many other people who have suffered on the wrong end of Uncle Sam’s brutal foreign policies the next time you hear a U.S, politician or talking head claim that Washington is advancing “peace,” “democracy,” and “human rights” abroad.

It might be good to know a thing or two real about the history of the United States and that of other countries when American political elites and cultural authorities routinely speak the nationally narcissistic language of “American exceptionalism.”  Among the things one might learn is that the ruling classes in all “modern” nations have disseminated myths about their countries’ supposed special mission and “unique” and benevolent excellence as deceptive cover for selfish capitalist and imperial agendas.

The United States is no, well, exception in that and other regards.   It’s doctrinal claim to be and always have been a special beacon and headquarters of human freedom, democracy, and justice is just precisely that cloak.

Why So Many History Teachers Suck

Done right, without ideological blinders, history is a radically democratic weapon in the struggle for social justice, ecological sustainability, and popular sovereignty. And that’s precisely why it is done so poorly in American K-12 education on the whole – so badly that Americans routinely report it to be one of their least favorite school topics.

The most frequent complaint is that history classes were boring exercises in the rote memorization of facts, dates, and names. Facts, names, and dates matter, of course.  If you think World War II happened in the 19th century or that Abraham Lincoln was one of the Founding Fathers then you are not going to have much chance of making sense of modern or American history.  But what makes facts interesting, worth remembering, and easily remembered is the bigger story of where and how they fit into a fearlessly truthful rendering of the fascinating record of human triumph and tragedy.

The biggest problem with K-12 history is that the narrow ideological confines in which is presented precludes such rendering.  The sterile hegemony of the nationally narcissistic  “American Exceptionalist” narrative enforced by textbook companies, university education departments, right-wing  ideological watchdogs, and local school boards reeks with bad faith and monumental falsehood.  It helps drag high school history down to the tedious learning, regurgitation, and forgetting of “great” names and dates. High school history is all too commonly taught by the football coach, with less moral and intellectual substance than Drivers Ed.

One might say, “well, but that’s just high school.  Things get better in colleges and universities.” History teaching and curriculum does improve better in “higher education.” But how much better is an open question. Most academic history professors are at leftmost liberal Democrats and thus remain largely stuck in dominant capitalist, imperialist, and nationalist narratives. That’s dull and depressing.  It’s at least one part of why academia couldn’t muster a serious movement even against something as historically and morally outrageous as George W. Bush’s arch-criminal and mass-murderous invasion and occupation of Iraq – and of why so many academics (including hundreds of historians) were so foolishly enthralled by the corporatist, imperialist, and “American exceptionalist” candidacy [1] and presidency of Barack Obama.

Even if college and university history, taught mainly by somewhat left-leaning liberals, is far superior to high school history taught Tea Party Trump-voting football coaches, moreover, the great majority of Americans never take a college-level history class.

To make matter worse, academic historians do very little to tell people why their subject matter matters. During my many years in and around academic history departments – as a graduate student, teaching assistant, adjunct professor (in at least five different colleges and universities in an around Chicago), a visiting professor – I was often struck by the field’s taboo against linking its subject matter with contemporary politics and history.  Historians’ nasty name for doing that is “presentism” – the sin of not appreciating history on its own terms and for its own sake.  It wasn’t just a left vs. liberal thing.  It was a professional class division of labor thing.

Academic historians love to bitch and moan about Americans’ ignorance of and indifference to history but they rarely if ever make the political case for why History matters for the present and future.  They don’t really make it in the public sphere.  They don’t make it to each other.  They rarely make the case to their students, very few of whom are ever of course going to hit the archives and become historians.  (All those reasons I gave above for why history matters to the present are from an opening lecture [titled “Why Study History?”]  I used to give in any and every history class I ever taught.  It was a very effective talk. I was not aware of a single other history professor who ever opened like that.  I imagine some did and do, but I suspect it is very rare).

Another great handicap is specialization.  Beyond political-ideological and professional class subject area expertise bias against making essential points on why history matters, many professional historians are ill-equipped to make the case because they have fallen so far away from “grand” and synthesizing narratives into an ever-multiplying panoply of overly disconnected sub-specialties that encourage a sort of divide-and-conquer incapacity to think big. They till so many different little gardens that they lose touch with the broader commons of the human past. It’s all very “post-modern” – and stupid and boring.

These were problems the libertarian-socialist history professor and activist Howard Zinn didn’t have, to say the least. It’s no wonder that he always had a certain suspect reputation among academic historians even as many of them almost grudgingly assigned his shining, radical, and monumental People’s History of the United States (a book not without empirical and interpretive flaws that any well-trained academic historian can discover in his opr her special area of expertise) since it got students to read and discuss – and even to think deeply about why history matters and their responsibility to engage in the making as well as the understanding of history. Imagine. It’s no wonder also that Zinn was so widely adored by students, readers, activists and others.

There are, of course, some admirable and enviable exceptions to my critique scattered across history department and even some high schools in the U.S. But they are too few and far between.


1/ Take a look back at this hilarious historical document: “Historians for Obama,” History News Network, April 21, 2008. More than 300 academic historians (including some very “big names” and some who might almost have called themselves Marxists) gave their signatures to the following childish statement: “Obama’s platform is ambitious, yet sensible…But it is his qualities of mind and temperament that really separate Obama from the rest of the pack. He is a gifted writer and orator who speaks forcefully but without animus. Not since John F. Kennedy has a Democrat candidate for president showed the same combination of charisma and thoughtfulness – or provided Americans with a symbolic opportunity to break with a tradition of bigotry older than the nation itself. Like Kennedy, he also inspires young people who see him as a great exception in a political world that seems mired in cynicism and corruption…As president, Barack Obama would only begin the process of healing what ails our society and ensuring that the U.S. plays a beneficial role in the world. But we believe he is that rare politician who can stretch the meaning of democracy, who can help revive what William James called ‘the civic genius of the people.’ We invite other historians to add your name to this statement” (emphasis added). For some interesting, smart, and left reflections on the not-so admirable or progressive record of John F. Kennedy, see Noam Chomsky, Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War, and U.S. Political Culture (Boston: South End Press, 1999); Bruce Mirrof, Pragmatic Illusions: The Presidential Politics of John F. Kennedy (Longman, 1979); Howard Zinn, Postwar America, 1945-1971 (a forgotten classic); Harvard Sitkoff, The Struggle for Black Equality (2008)

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).