For 50 years, our familiarity with American history has taken a beating.
In 2008, universities conferred 34,642 degrees in history. By 2017 that number had dropped to 24,266, according to the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History.
Both university and high school students are increasingly ignorant about their country’s past. In 2014, only 18 percent of eighth graders scored at or above proficient in a National Assessment of Educational Progress assessment of U.S. History. Some college students don’t know that Adolph Hitler was dictator of Germany.
Many colleges and universities no longer require students to enroll in survey courses of their nation’s history. In his online article “A Big Campus Trend: Ignorance of U.S. History,” John Leo calls our attention to a report issued by The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), which found that of “the nation’s top 25 liberal arts colleges, top 25 national universities, and top 25 public institutions,” less than a third required their students to take any American history class. In February 2019, The Washington Post called this ignorance a national scandal.
This ignorance and the disinterest of so many students in studying American history may be one explanation for the steep decline in visitors to such historical sites as Mount Vernon, Colonial Williamsburg, and Ellis Island. In May 2019, Martin Cothran in his online article “Why Are We No Longer Visiting Our Nation’s Historical Sites?” reports that Colonial Williamsburg attracts only half the visitors from 30 years ago and is now operating at a loss.
Of course, we can wage our own private war against this dumbing down of our knowledge of the past. Using histories, biographies, and videos—YouTube offers an array of American history videos for all ages—we can introduce our children and grandchildren to important figures and events from the past. We can take them to tour Bull Run and Gettysburg, Monticello and the Biltmore Estate, Kitty Hawk, Lexington Green and Concord Bridge, and the Alamo.
We can help them develop a respect and affection for those who founded and built this country—not only teaching them dates, names, and places, which are important, but also making them aware that history is a grand story, a march through time by men and women facing trials as arduous and soul-wrenching as those we face today.
And now we have just the book to help us succeed in this endeavor.
A New Book That Offers Hope
In “Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story,” Wilfred M. McClay, author and honored professor at the University of Oklahoma, gives readers a well-written, informative, and balanced account of the history of our republic. Though it has the feel of a textbook—our country might well undergo a renewal if this volume were in the hands of every high school and college student in the land—“Land of Hope” is, as the subtitle promises, the story of America, a narrative history that moves along at a good clip but includes thumbnail biographies, anecdotes, and little-known events.
Unlike some histories, “Land of Hope” takes a balanced approach to events of the past. Whatever the subject—the events leading up to the Civil War, the imperialism of the early 20th century, or the Cold War—McClay examines all sides of an issue. In discussing the Progressives of the early 20th century, for example, he makes their case and the good they did, but then turns to G.K. Chesterton and warns us of “an important principle of reform: before you tear down a fence, be sure you fully understand the use that fence was erected to serve.”
Because of this even-handed approach, “bad guys” and “good guys” are a rarity in “Land of Hope.” McClay brings to his analysis of historical figures not only his craft and knowledge of his subject, but also the realization that the people of the past were not stick figures but living, breathing human beings, people of their time who had no crystal ball for seeing into the future, whose motives, like ours, were a mixed bag of the personal and the visionary.
McClay’s brief biography of Henry Ford, for example, brilliantly sums up why this industrial magnate was able to attract workers to his assembly lines. Once Ford realized that such work could be “boring at best, dehumanizing at worst,” and wanting his workers to be able to afford the cars they were producing, his “wages were as much as double that of the competition; he would also move to a forty-hour workweek to make it more attractive for his workers to stick with him. As a consequence, the turnover rates in his factories dropped by 90 percent.”
Throughout this history, McClay reminds his readers several times that “One of the worst sins of the present—not just ours but any present—is its tendency to condescend toward the past, which is much easier to do when one doesn’t trouble to know the full context of that past or try to grasp the nature of its challenges….”
When we judge the past by our own standards, we fail to understand that past. Moreover, we fail to understand ourselves more fully in the context of our history. Like the blind men inspecting an elephant in the famous Indian fable, we identify only a part of the whole and declare we have found reality.
Based on Love for Our Country
Perhaps best of all, McClay clearly loves his country. Despite our many flaws, despite our failures, despite what remains to be done to improve the United States, we have in “Land of Hope” a book of hope.
McClay finishes his history with a short chapter defending American patriotism. At the end of this chapter, McClay writes, “We need to take aboard fully … that all human beings are created equal in the eyes of the Creator and that they bear an inherent dignity that cannot be taken away from them.”
He then adds that we need to “remember, and teach others to remember,” the meaning of “Lexington and Concord, and Independence Hall, and Gettysburg, and Promontory Point, Pointe due Hoc, and Birmingham, and West Berlin, and countless other places and moments of spirit and sacrifice in the American past—places and moments with which the American future will need to be conversant and will need to keep faith. I hope this book can be helpful in carrying out these important tasks.”
Thank you, Professor McClay. You have done your work in carrying out these important tasks. Time for the rest of us to do the same.