Thursday, July 25, 2019


 Excerpt from:

Professor William M. McClay
“Reunifying History in the Age of Fracture”
NAS Academic Questions, Spring 2018, 48-61

The chief purpose of a high school education in American history is not the development of critical thinking and analytic skills, although the acquisition of such skills is vitally important; nor is it the mastery of facts, although a solid grasp of the factual basis of American history is surely essential; nor is it the acquisition of a genuine historical consciousness, or an ability to “think like a historian,” the current Holy Grail among many theorists of historical pedagogy, although that certainly would be nice to have too, particularly under the present circumstances, in which historical memory seems to run at about fifteen minutes, especially in the young.

No, the chief purpose of a secondary school education in American history is something different. It is a rite of civic membership, an act of inculcation and formation, a way in which the young are introduced to the fullness of their political and cultural inheritance as Americans, enabling them to become literate and conversant in its many features, and to appropriate fully all that it has to offer them, both its privileges and its burdens. It is to make its stories theirs, and thereby let them come into the possession of the common treasure of its cultural life. In that sense the study of history is different from any other academic subject. It is not merely a body of knowledge. It also ushers the individual person into membership in a common world, and situates him in space and time. As in Plato’s great allegory of the cave, it ushers him into the light of day, into a public world, into a fuller and more capacious identity.


This is most especially true in a democracy. The American Founders, and perhaps most notably Thomas Jefferson, fully grasped that no popular government could flourish for long without an educated citizenry, one that understood the special virtues of republican self-government, and the civic and moral duty of citizens to uphold and guard it. As the historian Donald Kagan has put it, “Democracy requires a patriotic education,” and it does so for two reasons. First, because its success depends upon the active participation of its citizens in their own governance, and second, because without an education, there would be no way to persuade free individuals of the occasional need to sacrifice the pursuit of their self-interest for the sake of the greater good.

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