A society beset with historical amnesia is a dangerous one. History in the 21st-century academy has been warped into “social studies,” where the past is studied through the lenses of sociology and psychology. We conservatives need to promote a society that understands that studying the past as it happened is vital to the success of a great nation.
The latest civil unrest that has ravaged parts of the nation has included a particularly frightening form of civil disobedience: the tearing down of statues. Of course, the five-finger discount that seemed to permeate every department store, all to apparently honor the legacy of George Floyd, was nothing short of disgusting. Government leaders who did nothing to protect the already financially-strained retailers have themselves to blame for these perverse acts. But there is something uniquely frightening about the tearing down of statues that reflects a troubling reality, especially in regard to millennials.
What started as a movement to remove statues that symbolized America’s dark history of approving slavery quickly turned into a movement to remove statues that simply symbolized America’s history in general. One need not look any further than protesters tearing down statues of Frederick Douglass and Hans Christian Heg, a Wisconsin abolitionist, to see that there was a deep sense of historical illiteracy guiding these protesters. This historical amnesia among my generation frightens me; its consequences go beyond the tearing down of statues, and we should all be concerned.
Every student of history has heard the old adage that “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” History in the 21st-century academy, however, has been warped into “social studies.” Instead of studying the past as it happened, the past is studied through the lenses of sociology and psychology and in recent years, through activist scholarship which, as Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay discuss in their recent book Cynical Theories, has made everything about race, gender, and identity. The purpose of the 21st-century academy, according to Yale University President Peter Salovey, is to recognize “false narratives.” But as Heather Mac Donald notes in her book The Diversity Delusion, in order to challenge “a received narrative about the past, you should be expert in its established contours.” The academy of today doesn’t teach students history as it happened. When that happens, we end up with toppled statues of Frederick Douglass, toppled in the name of racial progress by individuals who can’t even identify him.
The shift from history to social studies is particularly acute in military history. In the late nineties, military historians were trying to chart a new path for themselves, as military history was viewed as a pariah within the academy. In a 1997 article in The Journal of Military History, John Lynn encouraged military historians to adopt a “new holy trinity plus one;” a prescription pair of glasses that views past conflicts through the lenses of race, class, gender, and labor. His call to action was heard and the “war and society” school was born. These military historians spend little time focusing on war as it relates to warfare and strategy. Instead, as Robert Citino wrote in The American Historical Review, they focus on “the social composition of armies and officer corps, civil-military relations, the impact of war on race, class, and gender.” While the “war and society” school has certainly left a positive impact on the academy, the neglect of analyzing past insurgencies, strategies, and tactics has had disastrous implications. A greater emphasis on studying actual warfare could have seen U.S. coalition forces avoid mistakes they have made in past insurgencies. This was particularly true with the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, where the United States made mistakes it could have avoided if there was simply more rigorous study of the past as it happened.
In mid-August, Harvard history professor James Hankins lamented how “conservative” history students, who are defined by their dislike of “mixing contemporary politics into every historical dish,” are having a hard time finding support in the academy. Whereas students were to have one day analyzed a war, they are now encouraged to write about the racial makeup of the soldiers who comprised both armies. To counter this trend, Professor Hankins writes that conservative grad students:
Need a community of like-minded peers, they need to be able to earn respect from older figures in the historical profession who value their research interests, and they need to learn the traditional methods of historical scholarship. They need an environment that encourages free inquiry—following the argument wherever it goes, as Socrates urged—and peers and mentors who believe that those who come after us should be able to enjoy the incomparable heritage of Western civilization.
A society beset with historical amnesia is a dangerous one. A society that hasn’t studied its past ends up with inappropriately-toppled statues and drawn-out wars that repeat past mistakes. Although most of us are not tenured professors and cannot easily lend a hand to grad students, we can encourage a society that understands that studying the past as it happened is vital to the success of a great nation.
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