The currently pervading approach to American history presents America in the worst possible light, distorting the full truth of our past and damaging our political health. Our K-12 schools need a restoration of temporal continuity, the key to revitalizing history and civics education that forms young people who both appreciate the gifts of the past and possess the capacity for independent and critical thinking.
As a professor of education administration and a former state board of education member, I often work with K-12 schools and educators to improve curriculum and instruction. In light of what some would call the growing “war on history,” I have recently been arguing for a much more intentional and self-consciously patriotic approach to the teaching of American history and civics.
Political scientist Eliot A. Cohen’s essay, “History, Critical and Patriotic,” is a key inspiration. Cohen argues that there is no contradiction between nurturing in students an appreciation for America’s past and form of government and also acknowledging the failures of our past and our collective struggle to live up to the core principles of the nation’s founding.
Nevertheless, some social studies educators have reacted to my proposal with deep skepticism, insisting—often in direct contradiction to my own words—that I am seeking to indoctrinate students in some type of blind allegiance to America that denies her complicated and often morally messy past.
What is indoctrination, however, is the approach to American history that has pervaded our schools over the last generation, one that is so common many social studies teachers have taken it for granted as the American story and the way to teach it to students. This approach presents America in the worst possible light, distorting the full truth of our past and ultimately damaging our political health.
In “Progress and Memory: Making Whole Our Historical Sense,” found in his collection of essays Conserving America? Essays on Present Discontents, Notre Dame political philosopher Patrick Deneen argues that three key ideologies tend to dominate American political thought, each with its own distorted attitude toward time, particularly the past. Dr. Deneen identifies these maladaptive philosophies, which promote various kinds of disconnection between present, past, and future, as liberalism, progressivism, and nostalgism. He argues for the concept of “temporal continuity,” which he associates with a healthy conservatism, that unites a “felt-presence of past and future in the present.”
I believe that temporal continuity is precisely what is missing from our current approach to the teaching of American history and civics in many of our K-12 schools, primarily because of the dominance of liberal and progressive ideas within the education establishment. A restoration of temporal continuity could be a key to revitalizing history and civics education that forms young people who both appreciate the gifts of the past and also possess the capacity for independent and critical thinking, especially as they engage as virtuous citizens in our democratic republic.
Dr. Deneen argues that liberalism, which originates primarily in the thought of John Locke (but also proto-liberals like Machiavelli, Descartes, Bacon, and Hobbes), “begins with a radical critique of the ancestral:”
That which is bequeathed us from the past is understood to be a form of generational oppression… Liberalism inaugurates a project in legitimacy that can only be conferred upon a human institution when that institution has been chosen… The anthropology of liberalism divorces us from time past and time future. Humans are de-cultured and a-historical creatures: in the State of Nature there is only Now-time, absent culture or memory, history or planning… The claims of the ancestral—of the past—are to exert no preferential claim upon us.
I remember from my own experiences learning—and then later teaching—social studies, that we took (and taught) the construct of the social contract as a given: that the purpose of governments was to secure maximum liberty, understood as the freedom to do as we please as long as we don’t interfere with the “right” of others to do as they please. The liberal lens tends to see history as one long struggle to liberate individuals to pursue their own happiness in a realm of pure choice, free of the stifling restraints of family, religion, and societal expectations.
Consider the common way the Pilgrims are now presented in American classrooms. They are not heroes of religious freedom, brave political pioneers whose Mayflower Compact helped lay the groundwork for self-government in America. No, the Pilgrims were intolerant theocrats who suppressed the religious liberties of dissenters in their midst and brought disease and destruction upon the Native Americans. That both of these things are, at least partially, true is too complex a picture for the liberal mind bent only on advocating for the perpetual liberation of the individual over the very society which forms him.
Meanwhile, progressivism is a form of liberalism that is utterly dissatisfied with the personal “liberty” liberalism alleges to have secured for us. It is not enough to be free, we must also seek a particular kind of justice. Simply put, the present is not good enough, and progressives fix their eyes on an idealized future.
If liberalism put all human institutions on the footing of choice—even family—Progressivism regarded all such institutions as fundamentally illegitimate, partial expressions of our true social and even “cosmic” consciousness. Thus Progressivism set in its sights all partial and intermediary institutions, whether marriage, family, church, fraternal association, neighborhood, partial political units such as the States, even and ultimately the Nation itself. In the end all such partial allegiances were to be dissolved in favor of the universal embrace of humanity itself, and thus—in the name of the Future—efforts to accelerate the dissolution of those partial associations were justified in the present… Egalitarianism is posited as a desirable future condition, an aspiration that justifies the beneficent and paternalistic rule of sufficiently progressed elites in the Present.
And thus, with the heightened presence of progressivism in our schools and culture, our education system has tilted even further toward a theory of history that encourages young people to seek out the villains, and to see the past and our collective political and social heritage as a collection of crushingly conformist and illegitimate institutions that must be eliminated in the name of equity, grievance, or restitution for past wrongs. Perhaps the best example of this attitude is captured in the New York Times’ historically inaccurate 1619 Project, which has been adopted as a curriculum in schools around the U.S.
But the 1619 Project is only the latest manifestation of this attitude that goes back at least 40 years to Howard Zinn’s horribly flawed A People’s History of the United States, one of the most influential works of pseudo-historical progressive propaganda. Mary Graber’s excellent new volume, Debunking Howard Zinn, notes how Zinn used loaded rhetorical questions in a way that is often mimicked by history teachers as “inquiry learning” to draw students to the obvious conclusion that America is flawed to the core:
In the World War II chapter of “A People’s History,” Zinn asks, “With the defeat of the Axis, were fascism’s essential elements—militarism, racism, imperialism—now gone, or were they absorbed into the already poisoned bones of the victors?” Here Zinn is suggesting that the United States is the moral equivalent of Hitler’s Germany…. Zinn has succeeded in convincing a generation of Americans that the nation Abraham Lincoln truly called “the last best hope on Earth” is essentially a racist criminal enterprise built on murdering Indians, exploiting slaves, and oppressing the working man. It obviously needs to be replaced by something better. And of course, Zinn has the answer: a classless, egalitarian society. Yes, what Zinn is selling is the very same communist utopian fantasy that killed more than a hundred million human beings in the twentieth century.
The opposite of Howard Zinn (what today we would call “woke”) progressivism, Dr. Deneen says, is Nostalgism, which “holds that humankind is in a continual process of decline and regress, that various corruptions have caused a falling away from a previously better condition… Nostalgists at their most radical assume a hostile and even revolutionary stance toward the Present and the Future in which extreme actions are justified in getting us back.”
Nostalgism is often confused with conservatism, Dr. Deneen argues, often for good reason and based on the rhetoric of many on the Right (“Make America Great Again”), but he identifies this attitude more closely with the Romantic ideas of Jean Jacques Rousseau and fringe elements of the modern environmental movement which long for an imaginary pre-history in which humans lived in perfect harmony with nature (or perhaps when there were no humans at all).
This kind of nostalgism probably exerts little influence on the education system or the teaching of history except perhaps for the tendency of many progressives to romanticize the lives of Native Americans prior to European exploration and conquest. Liberalism and progressivism, on the other hand, have come to dominate our collective thinking and education system so deeply that most Americans are largely unaware of how thoroughly and blindly they accept their core assumptions.
As Dr. Deneen elaborates in his 2018 book, Why Liberalism Failed, liberalism
has been for modern Americans like water for a fish, an encompassing political ecosystem in which we have swum, unaware of its existence… We live in a society and increasingly a world that has been remade in the image of an ideology… but unlike the visibly authoritarian regimes that arose in dedication to advancing the ideologies of fascism and communism, liberalism is less visibly ideological and only surreptitiously remakes the world in its image. In contrast to its crueler competitor ideologies, liberalism is insidious. As an ideology it pretends to neutrality, claiming no preference and denying any intention of shaping the souls under its rule… It makes itself invisible, much as a computer’s operation system goes largely unseen—until it crashes. Liberalism becomes daily more visibly precisely because its deformations are becoming too obvious to ignore.
In terms of education, the fixation of liberalism and progressivism on the present and the future has caused a deeply distorted view of our past, and it shows in our assumptions about how to address the teaching of history. It fosters a partial and uncharitable view of our forebears and denies us a common sense of national unity which is absolutely necessary for the flourishing and even the continuation of our republic. In The Virtue of Nationalism, Yoram Hazony argues that it is the “bonds of mutual loyalty” that are forged by a shared past but “revised and strengthened by joint adversity in the present.”
In the epilogue of the magnificent new text, Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, historian Wilfred McClay says it this way:
What binds them [Americans]… is a shared story, a shared history. The ballast of the American past is an essential part of American national identity and it is something quite distinct from the “idea” of America… Our nation’s particular triumphs, sacrifices, and sufferings—and our memories of those things—draw and hold us together, precisely because they are the sacrifices and sufferings not of all humanity, but of us alone.
In interpreting the world through the lens of raw individualism or narrow group identities, liberal and progressive perspectives destroy our sense of the past by denying the very existence of this shared history.
Patrick Deneen offers temporal continuity, reflected in a healthy conservative disposition, as the best way to reconnect our shared, lived experience of past, present, and future. Citing the ideas of historian Christopher Lasch, Dr. Deneen says that this disposition is geared toward memory and hope:
Memory is an honest recollection of the past, a full reckoning of the great resource of accumulated time that constitutes the great storehouse of human history. Yet, unlike so much of contemporary history-study—which consists in a debunking—memory recalls good and bad alike, recognizing that one cannot be dissociated from the other therefore always recalling to mind that the human condition… is always imperfect.
Memory, then, invokes hope. We have seen how we have overcome adversities and our own short-comings as a people in the past, and that gives us hope for the future. Such hope is not a cheery optimism, but rather, “in addition to proper attitude of indebtedness and gratitude [toward the past], the resources to appropriately face the future.”
“Such continuity of past, present and future is not the result of individual concentration or sheer will-power, but the lived reality of a properly constituted culture,” Dr. Deneen writes. The very purpose of education, among many other things, is to convey a culture to our children that they might be formed in such a way as to enjoy true liberty in the original sense of the word, which is mastery of our own selfishness for the service of others.
Liberalism, progressivism, and even nostalgism are all implicitly hostile to culture—to the idea that, regardless of our diversity, we have a common shared heritage that has much to teach us about how to live and how to be free in the classical sense of possessing virtue and self-control. Denying the fact of our common heritage as Americans is not only uncharitable to the facts of the past but weakens the mutual loyalty necessary for a political stability—a vital element of political health. Again, Dr. Deneen:
The conservative disposition conserves time in its full dimension—past, present, and future—and above all defends those forms of culture that provide safe transmission of the past through the present and into the indefinite future… It was none other than Burke who articulated the essential wholeness of time, positing—against the likes of Hobbes and Locke—that the social contract was not merely “a partnership between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are yet to be born.”
It seems to me that temporal continuity—this sense of seamless connection between our past and our future, the dynamic between memory of the past (the bad and the good, as we would judge it today) and hope for the future (that from our common national heritage we can draw lessons for a brighter tomorrow that is ever more fully American), is exactly what we need to self-consciously bring to our curriculum design, teaching, and assessment of history and the social studies.
Let me end with the words of Abraham Lincoln, who even at his first inauguration understood what binds Americans together, and what it would take to hold us together in the future. Lincoln knew that, despite our differences, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break the bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
 See Gary Houchens, “Our schools need patriotic American history now more than ever,” School Leader (June 2020).
 Eliot A. Cohen, “History, Critical and Patriotic,” Education Next (2020).
 See Lipton Matthews, “How To Disprove The 6 Most Outrageous Myths Of The 1619 Project,” The Federalist (July 2020).
The featured image is a detail from “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” (1861) by Emanuel Leutze (1816–1868), and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened slightly for clarity.