The study of history in public schools should be conducted with an eye to “fostering good citizenship.” But it should do more than that. It should foster good human beings—human beings with broad minds and contemplative souls who appreciate the power of ideas.

“If history be, in truth, the self consciousness of humanity, the ‘self consciousness of the living age, acquired by understanding its development from the past,’” is it not fair to say that we stand on the threshold of a new dark age, that we grow less awake the more woke we become?[1, 2]

The historical illiteracy that afflicts Americans in the twenty-first century is well established. Studies show that growing numbers of people, including putatively highly educated ones, are ignorant of what ought to be elemental facts. By way of example, a report released at the start of this century by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni showed that 40% of college seniors could not determine the correct half century in which the Civil War occurred; nearly 50% did not know why The Federalist Papers were written; and more than 75% could not identify James Madison as the Father of the Constitution. What renders these results all the more deplorable is that the survey consisted of multiple-choice questions and the seniors who took it were ones set to graduate from the nation’s top 55 liberal arts colleges and research universities.[3]

That is the sort of report that ought to shock the conscience of a nation and stir it to act, but the first two decades of the twenty-first century suggest that Americans remain largely unperturbed by their historical illiteracy. At my own institution—far from elite, but still one of higher learning for which a rudimentary foundation of knowledge ought to be a precondition—the majority of students who take my introductory American Government class can tell me nothing of Dred Scott or Brown v. Board; they cannot name a single power that Article I grants to Congress; nor, for that matter, can they list more than one or two privileges that the Bill of Rights guarantees them. In 1831, Tocqueville could find himself at a cabin in the American wilderness, where, far removed from civilization, a frontiersman with a volume of Shakespeare on his shelf and a newspaper on his table, could school the young Frenchman on the rights of Americans and the workings of their government.[4] Today, one could scour college campuses in vain for students who are versed in their constitutional rights, to say nothing of Shakespeare.

To all this one might rejoin, so what? Twenty-first-century Americans are no good at history. Who cares? What difference does it make if a substantial number of Americans think the Civil War took place in the first half of the nineteenth century or if they never read a Federalist Paper or heard of Marbury v. Madison? How does what happened in eighteenth-century America, let alone seventeenth-century England or fifth-century (BC) Athens, matter at all today? Why should one care about what befell a bunch of white dudes whose hour upon life’s stage transpired in some distant past? Lots of reasons, though none of the important ones having anything to do with complexions or chromosomes.

First, maturation. A man ignorant of history is no man. He is at best, to paraphrase Cicero, a child, or worse yet a brute.[5] Unlike humans, animals are unhistorical. Not only do they not compose history, but also they do not develop on account of it. A crocodile is today what it was a million years ago. One cannot say the same of humans. Modern man and paleolithic man are substantively unalike. They behave differently; they think differently; they see differently; they live differently. Their biological similitude belies a historical transformation that has irrevocably severed man from man.

All this suggests that humans harbor depths that animals know nothing of. When we ignore those depths and fail to explore them, our souls flatten and horizons contract. History then broadens and enriches us. As Turner notes, there is nothing narrow about history. It is expansive, comprehensive, universal. “It is more than past literature, more than past politics, more than past economics.”[6] And so too are those who comprise it. Humans are vast and multidimensional; they contain, to borrow from Whitman, multitudes.[7]

The danger that results from a studious neglect of history is not just that our souls will be impoverished, but that they will, over time, languish in a state of sterility and servility. As the Founding Fathers understood, ignorance and independence will never coincide. In part this is because vigilance is needed to defend liberty; and to vigilance, ignorance is corrosive. But on a more foundational level, a person whose pleasures are reducible to those of the material variety is easier to sate and subjugate. He readily will exchange the higher good (e.g., autonomy) for the lesser (e.g., material comfort). Freedom and profundity are integral to maturation.

History also gives a sense of proportion and perspective. “To study history is to study problems.”[8] Fortunately for the lover of history, history teems with problems. Humans have been at this a long time. While progress can be made—and undeniably has been—it seems naïve, if not delusional, to think, particularly in view of the horrors of the twentieth century, that we are closer to having it all figured out, that the moment is at hand when the conflicts that have relentlessly bedeviled our species will be resolved once and for all. Those who pore over the historical record come to appreciate the permanence of the problems that repose in the human condition and the impermanence of the solutions to those problems. And with that appreciation comes moderation—a sense of epistemic humility akin to Socratic wisdom that is in woefully short supply these days.

We live in hypersensitive times. It is not coincidental that in these times, so many are ill-informed about the past. No doubt injustices are part and parcel of our age, as they are of every other. But there also is no doubt that our age enjoys an unprecedented amount of comfort, security, and freedom. That does not mean one should resign oneself to the wrongs that riddle our day. But it does suggest that one should not magnify them unduly. To comprehend the hardships that were man’s common lot in earlier times, hardships that I trust most of us would find difficult to bear, is to realize just how good we have it. What ought to follow from this awareness is not complacency but fortitude. The inevitable trials and tribulations of life are easier to weather when one learns that others have weathered them—and ones far worse—before. As David McCullough wonderfully remarked, “A sense of history is an antidote to self-pity and self-importance, of which there is much too much in our time. To a large degree, history is a lesson in proportions.”[9]

To perspective and proportion, I would add preservation. If we are unable to perceive the value of our inheritance, what prospect can there be of preserving that inheritance? In this regard, it may be helpful to reflect on how the Western tradition is appraised these days—in the academy and beyond. It once was common for students to study that tradition—its significant works, its celebrated figures, its singular achievements—with the understanding that it was worthy of being esteemed. An opposing estimation undergirds the very blinkered and jaundiced study of Western Civilization today, namely that what that civilization merits is not celebration but condemnation. In this fashionable approach, Western Civilization is defined by a litany of misdeeds that call for it to be deconstructed and consigned to the historical dust heap.

What the widespread embrace of this approach presupposes is a deep-seated ignorance (coupled at times with an unrelenting obstinance). That the history of the West is littered with enormities is hardly open to dispute—a verity that the West acknowledged long before today’s vanguard of social justice crusaders put it on (show) trial. But the study of history reveals that to “the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime” all peoples have unstintingly contributed.[10] The sins of the West are emphatically unoriginal. But the same cannot be said of its virtues. There is a reason why virtually every country in the top twenty of the Human Development Index is a Western country—an index that takes into account not only people’s wealth, but also their personal freedom, access to education, and ability to lead productive lives as participatory members of the communities to which they belong. It is because those countries embody certain values that lend themselves to human development. Those values—respect for human dignity, protection of individual rights, a spirit of openness and inquiry—are not given. They are the cultural efflorescence of a long historical process that can be traced back to the wellsprings of Western Civilization (Athens and Jerusalem), when ideas about the primacy of reason and equality of souls took root. We, the heirs of that tradition, have a duty to safeguard and cultivate the civilizational fruits we enjoy and too often take for granted. So long as we flout that duty, those fruits cannot but rot.

While extoling pluralism, tolerance, and freedoms of conscience, religion, and the like is de rigueur in our day, disparaging the civilization that gave rise to those values is commonplace. That practice cannot continue indefinitely. When the foundations upon which those values rest collapse, it will not be long before the values themselves lose their value. The rise of the woke, who narrow-mindedly and sanctimoniously cancel, de-platform, or otherwise silence those who do not espouse their views, portends such a denouement. To pluralism, tolerance, and freedom, wokeness is inimical.

Teachers in general, and teachers of history in particular, have a responsibility to resist such retrograde forces. As Turner contends, “the school teacher is called to do a work above and beyond the instruction in his school. He is called upon to be the apostle of the higher culture to the community in which he is placed.” The study of history in public schools should be conducted with an eye to “fostering good citizenship.” But it should do more than that. It should foster good human beings—human beings with broad minds and contemplative souls who appreciate the power of ideas (“ideas have ruled and will rule”); who, given the tremendous complexity of human life, view all ready and final solutions as inherently suspect; and who fathom the intrinsic fragility of civilization and grasp that the civilizational gains it took centuries—millennia even—to achieve cannot be long preserved by a people ignorant of their history.

Without a meaningful understanding of the past, there can be little hope for the future.

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.


[1] The title of this essay was inspired by the following quotation: “With the past no longer shedding light on the future, the mind advances in darkness.” Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 673. While the title takes its bearings from Tocqueville, the essay as a whole was prompted by a (re)reading of Frederick Jackson Turner’s “The Significance of History.”

[2] Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of History,” Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner: “The Significance of the Frontier in American History and Other Essays (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 19.

[3] Anne D. Neal and Jerry Martin, “Losing America’s Memory: Historical Illiteracy in the 21st Century,” American Council of Trustees and Alumni, February 1, 2000.

[4] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. I, part 2, chap. 9 (“On the Principal Causes Tending to Maintain a Democratic Republic in the United States”).

[5] Cicero, De Oratore, ch. 34 para. 120.

[6] Turner, “Significance of History,” 28.

[7] Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” in Leaves of Grass (section 51).

[8] Turner, “Significance of History,” 13.

[9] David McCullough, The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2017), 57.

[10] Winston Churchill, “Blood, Toils, Tears, and Sweat” (speech delivered to Parliament May 13, 1940).

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