Wednesday, February 19, 2020


George Mason University
History News Network

Contentless Writing

By Will Fitzhugh

Mr. Fitzhugh is Editor and Publisher of The Concord Review [] and Founder of the National Writing Board [].

Abraham Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg was short. Indeed, the President had spoken and taken his seat before many in that large crowd gathered outdoors even realized that he had spoken. Fortunately, an alert reporter took down his words. Short as the speech was, it began with a date and a fact—the sort of factual content that is being drained away from student writing today.

The very idea of writing without content takes some getting used to. I was taken aback not long ago to read the comments of a young woman who had been asked how she felt about having a computer grade the essays that she wrote on the Graduate Management Admission Test (Mathews, 2004). She replied that she didn’t mind, noting that the test givers were more interested in her “ability to communicate” than in what she actually said.

Although style, fluency, tone, and correct grammar are certainly important in writing, folks like me think that content has value as well. The guidelines for scoring the new writing section on the SAT seem to say otherwise, however. Readers evaluating the essays are told not to take points off for factual mistakes, and they must score the essays “holistically”—at the rate of 30 an hour (Winerip, 2005).

Earlier this year, Linda Shaw of the Seattle Times (2006), reported that the the rules for the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) do not allow dictionaries, but “when it comes to the writing section, there’s one rule they can break: They can make things up. Statistics. Experts. Quotes. Whatever helps them make their point.” According to Shaw, the state’s education office announced that “making up facts is acceptable when writing nonfiction, persuasive essays on the WASL.”

Lest you conclude that writing without content, or writing nonfiction with fictional content—think James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces—is limited to the Left Coast, think again. Across the United States, even the most prestigious writing workshops for teachers generally bypass the what to focus on the how.

All writing has to have some content, of course. So what are students encouraged to put down on the page? In its 2003 report, The Neglected ‘R’, The National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges, gave us a clue. According to the report, the following passage by a high school student about the September 11 terrorist attacks shows “how powerfully children can express their emotions.”

    “The time has come to fight back and we are. By supporting our leaders and each other, we are stronger than ever. We will never forget those who died, nor will we forgive those who took them from us.”

Or look at the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) the supposed gold standard for evaluating academic achievement in U.S. schools, as measured and reported by the National Center for Education Statistics. In its 2002 writing assessment, in which 77 percent of 12th graders scored “Basic” or “Below Basic,” NAEP scored the following student response “Excellent.” The prompt called for a brief review of a book worth preserving. In a discussion of Herman Hesse’s Demian, in which the main character grows up and awakens to himself, the student wrote,

    “High school is a wonderful time of self-discovery, where teens bond with several groups of friends, try different foods, fashions, classes and experiences, both good and bad. The end result in May of senior year is a mature and confident adult, ready to enter the next stage of life. (p. 22)”

As these two excerpts show, both the National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges and the NAEP seem to favor emotional and personal writing, at least at the high school level. If personal memoir and “fictional nonfiction” were the sorts of writing that college courses required—not to mention in business, government and other lines of work—then perhaps it wouldn’t matter. After all, top executives at ENRON wrote quite a bit of fiction before their arrests, not to mention some well-known journalists who substituted fiction for fact in their reporting.

The problem is that students must know facts, dates, and the viewpoints of various experts and authors to write their college term papers. The Boston Globe has reported some frightening statistics about students’ knowledge gaps. Sixty-three percent of students graduating from Massachusetts high schools and attending community colleges are in remedial courses, as are 34 percent of those attending four-year colleges. (Sacchetti, 2004)

A survey of leading U.S. companies revealed that organizations are spending more than $3 billion each year in remedial writing courses for both hourly and salaried employees (National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges, 2004).

Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay

As it happens, some teachers and students in U.S. high schools know that writing serious, factual history research papers is good and necessary preparation for future writing tasks, and that it’s a superb way to learn history and practice scholarship. One student, whose history essay appeared in The Concord Review (see “Raising the Bar for Expository Writing,” p. 46) was so interested in the trial and excommunication of Anne Hutchinson in the early 1600s that she spent several months during her Junior year doing independent study at a public high school in Massachusetts. Her 13,000-word research paper won The Concord Review’s Ralph Waldo Emerson Prize [she graduated summa cum laude from Yale and is now a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford].

The student found Anne Hutchinson’s independence inspiring. In the following extract from her paper, the student discusses the accusations made against Hutchinson during the trial in which this courageous woman was excommunicated for questioning in private the authority of the ministers as the sole source of God’s wisdom:

    “...This bitter speech, made by a man who had seen his entire career threatened by the woman now standing before him, opened a trial marked by extraordinary vindictiveness on the part of the men presiding. Why? Because their regulatory power had been, up to this point, thwarted. Hutchinson had done nothing in public, nothing that could be clearly seen and defined, nothing that could be clearly punished. The principal accusation leveled against her was failure to show proper respect to the ministers, but again, she had made no public speeches or declarations, and the court would soon find that producing evidence of her insolence was very difficult.

    The assembly did not immediately strike to the heart of the matter: Hutchinson’s disparagement of the ministers of the colony as under a covenant of works. Instead, the presiding ministers first accused her of disobeying the commandment to obey one’s father and one’s mother by not submitting to the ‘fathers of the commonwealth,’ as [Governor] Winthrop termed it. Next, Hutchinson’s meetings were condemned, despite her citation of a rule in Titus exhorting the elder women to teach the younger.”

This is factual writing about a historical event—a trial—in which the facts of the case were of the greatest importance. Fiction was not the focus here. The author’s emotions, and her “experiences in high school,” were distinctly of secondary—if any—importance in her account of these events in American religious and legal history.

Some readers may mistakenly assume that writing with content is common in schools. In 2002, the Roper Organization conducted a study for The Concord Review and found that in U.S. public high schools, 81% of teachers never assign a 5,000-word research paper—that’s 8,000 words shorter than the previously cited award-winning essay—and 62% never assign a 3,000-word nonfiction paper. (The Concord Review 2002). Although 95% of teachers surveyed believed that research papers were “important” or “very important,” most reported that they did not have time to assign and grade them.

When Support Trumps Rigor

In her report for the Fordham Foundation on state social studies standards in the United States, researcher Sandra Stotsky (1999), cited a newspaper article about a Hispanic high school student named Carol who was unprepared for college work. Described as a top student, the girl was stunned by the level of writing that her Boston college demanded of her. Although the student said that she had received encouragement and support from her high school teachers, she wished that her teachers had given her more challenging work. According to the reporter, the student discovered that “moral support is different from academic rigor.” Stotsky noted that teachers often substitute self-esteem-building assignments for rigorous work. The same newspaper article described a high school teacher:

    “who had had her students “write a short story about their lives” because, in the teacher’s words, it allowed them to show “a high level of writing ability” and to realize that “their own experience is valid and useful.” This teacher is also quoted as believing that this assignment reflected her “high expectations” for her students. It apparently did not occur to the reporter that this kind of writing assignment today, especially for high school students from minority groups, is more likely to reflect a concern for their self-esteem rather than a desire to challenge them intellectually. A regular flow of such writing assignments may be part of the reason that Hispanic students like Carol are not prepared for college-level writing.” (pp. 269-270)

Students like Carol who belatedly discover their lack of preparedness for college work are far more numerous than one might think. Through a survey of recent high school graduates (Achieve, Inc., 2005), the National Governors Association learned that a large majority of students surveyed wished that their teachers had given them more challenging work. Moreover, the High School Survey of Student Engagement (Indiana University, 2004) found that 55% of the 80,000 students surveyed said they did fewer than three hours of homework each week, and most received As and Bs anyway.

Anything But Knowledge

Writing about oneself can be the work of genius, as Marcel Proust demonstrated so well in his masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time. But limiting students to thinking and writing almost entirely about themselves in school is, well, limiting. The Boston Globe, which annually celebrates essays on Courage, asks students to submit short essays—not about someone else’s courage, but about their own. Of course, famous people like Anne Hutchinson, Winston Churchill, or Martin Luther King, Jr., don’t have a monopoly on courage. But it would be refreshing for students to look outside themselves from time to time to reflect on such qualities in others. Unfortunately, solipsism seems to have become the order of the day; the lack of a sustained focus on objectivity and rigor in writing is showing up in poor literacy rates, greater numbers of remedial classes in college, and higher college dropout rates.

In 2005, comedian Stephen Colbert introduced the idea of "truthiness" into the English language. The term characterizes speech or writing that appears to be accurate and serious, but is, in fact, false or comical. In college, I learned that one of the tasks of thought is to help us distinguish appearance from reality. The goal of "truthiness" is to blur that distinction. On satirical news programs, like The Daily Show, this dubious practice brings the relief of laughter, but on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning—in which students are told that it’s OK to make things up—it just brings confusion, even to the task of writing “nonfiction.”

Postmodernists and deconstructionists at the university level have long been claiming that there is no such thing as truth, but here we have high school students being told, on a state assessment, that when writing nonfiction, it is OK to invent an expert, and then “quote” him in support of an argument they are making.

The danger is that practices like these can lead high school students to believe that they don’t need to seek information about anything outside of their own feelings and experiences. However, college students are still expected to read nonfiction books, which obviously deal with topics other than their personal lives. Students also have to write research papers in which they must organize their thinking and present material coherently. Too many students are not prepared to do this, and many end up dropping out of college. What a terrible waste of time, hopes and opportunity!

Will Fitzhugh [founder]
The Concord Review [1987]
Ralph Waldo Emerson Prizes [1995]
National Writing Board [1998]
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776 USA
978-443-0022; 800-331-5007;
Varsity Academics®


Achieve (2005). Rising to the challenge: Are high school graduates prepared for college and work? PowerPoint presentation prepared by the Peter D. Hart Research Associates and Public Opinion Strategies. Available:

The Concord Review, (2002). History research paper study (conducted by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis). Available:

Indiana University. (2004) High School Survey of Student Engagement. Bloomington, IN: [Martha McCarthy]

Mathews, J. (2004, August 1). Computers weighing in on the elements of essay; Programs critique structure not ideas. The Washington Post

National Center for Education Statistics. (2002). The Nation’s Report Card: Writing Highlights 2002.

National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges. (2003). The neglected ‘R’; The need for a writing revolution. New York: College Board.

National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges. (2004). Writing: A ticket to work...or a ticket out: A survey of business leaders.

Sacchetti, M. (2005, June 26) Colleges question MCAS success; many in state schools still need remedial help. The Boston Globe.

Shaw, L. (2006, March 17). WASL writing: Make it up as they go along. The Seattle Times, p. B1.

Stotsky, S (1999). Losing Our Language: How Multicultural Classroom Instruction is Undermining Our Children’s Ability to Read, Write, and Reason. New York: The Free Press, pp. 269-271

Winerip, M. (2005, May 4). SAT Essay rewards length and ignores errors. The New York Times.

This essay was first published by Educational Leadership [ASCD] and is reprinted with permission of the author.

Monday, February 17, 2020


At three in the morning, German time, on 22 June 1941, Soviet Ambassador Vladimir Dekanozov was summoned to the German Foreign Ministry in the Berlin Wilhelmstrasse. When the Soviet delegation reached the Ministry, there were floodlights and a small crowd of journalists, photographers and film cameramen. Exactly one hour after the telephone call, they were in the not unfamiliar surroundings of the office of the Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop. He had obviously been drinking. Ribbentrop told Dekanozov he had information that the Soviet Union had been preparing to attack Germany and that Germany had therefore had to take measures to guarantee its own ‘security’. The concentration of Soviet troops on Germany’s ‘eastern border’ necessitated ‘military countermeasures’. An hour before, he said, German forces had crossed into the Soviet Union. After nearly two years of apparently fruitful economic and political collaboration between Germany and the USSR, it was war

Dekanozov turned his back on the Germans, and the Soviet delegation walked away. Then, according to Valentin Berezhkov, the young Soviet interpreter, Ribbentrop chased after the withdrawing Soviet delegation, saying that he had been against Hitler’s decision, and that he had tried to talk the Führer out of his ‘madness’ (Wahnsinn). ‘Please inform Moscow that I was against the attack,’ were the last words Berezhkov heard him say. None of the others present reported this alleged outburst in exactly the same way, but, given the magnitude of the news they had just received, perhaps that is not altogether surprising (although the Soviet diplomats had been aware of all the reports indicating a German attack was imminent). It seems almost too remarkable and untypical of such occasions for Berezhkov to have made it up, and one of Ribbentrop’s officials reported the same sentiment, if not the same words. Having worked since 1939 to build Nazi-Soviet cooperation, it is understandable that Ribbentrop should feel this way. He had almost certainly grown to know and respect the Russians— who, until now, had been colleagues, if not full allies.

Chris Bellamy, Absolute War: Soviet Russia in the Second World War. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020


One important characteristic of “natural law” in this case is that help is always defined by the recipient.

Douglas McGregor, Sloan School, MIT
The Human Side of Enterprise
Boston: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1960, 163-164

The Appropriate Role of Staff

    The appropriate role of any major staff that of providing professional help to all levels of management. In some cases, such as engineering, the help is provided primarily to one or two functions, e.g., manufacturing and sales. In other cases, such as accounting and personnel, the help is provided to all other functions.

    The hierarchical nature of the organization has tended to focus attention on help given to the level at which the staff group reports. Rewards and punishments for staff members come from there. Moreover, prestige and status are greater the higher level of “attachment.” In large companies, where there are both headquarters and field staff groups, it is particularly important that the headquarters groups recognize and accept their responsibilities for providing help to all levels of management.

    The provision of professional help is a subtle and complex process. Perhaps the most critical point—and the one hardest to keep clearly in mind—is that help is always defined by the recipient. Taking an action with respect to someone because “it is best for him,” or because “it is for the good of the organization,” may be influencing him, but it is not providing help unless he so perceives it. Headquarters staff groups tend to rationalize many of their activities on the field organization in a paternalistic manner and, as a consequence, fail to see that they are relying on inappropriate methods of control. When the influence is unsuccessful, the usual reaction occurs: The recipients of the “help” are seen as resistant, stupid, indifferent to organizational needs, etc. The provision of help, like any other form of control or influence, requires selective adaptation to natural law. One important characteristic of “natural law” in this case is that help is defined by the recipient...

Tuesday, February 11, 2020


The triangular relationship among civic education, historical knowledge, and patriotism seems in our day to be broken.

Education Next

History, Critical and Patriotic
Americans need a history that educates but also inspires

By Eliot A. Cohen
SPRING 2020 / VOL. 20, NO. 2

When my mother passed away at the ripe old age of 90, several years ago, my brothers and I had the bittersweet task of emptying out the home she and my father had lived in for well over half a century, and where we grew up. We took various keepsakes and mementoes. I made a beeline for the books and magazines. While leafing through, I realized how much my picture of America had been formed by them and the tempered but patriotic history they conveyed. They reflected the middlebrow culture of mid-twentieth century America, which carried many of my generation through the turmoil of social change, war, and political crisis. And they reminded me of the need for robust history and civic education today.

The first collection of books I recovered was from when I was quite young. It was the Landmark series of histories for young people, conceived by Bennett Cerf of Random House and launched in 1948 with books by topnotch novelists like Dorothy Canfield Fisher, C. S. Forester, and Robert Penn Warren, and war correspondents like William L. Shirer, Quentin Reynolds, and Richard Tregaskis. It eventually ran to some 180 volumes and covered not just American history but everything from the pharaohs of ancient Egypt to the United Nations in war and peace. Although mainly out of print, they retain some appeal to homeschooling parents and are easy to find in used bookstores.

Next I found my old copy of Kenneth Roberts’ historical novel about the American retreat from Canada in 1776 and the Saratoga campaign of 1777, Rabble in Arms. In it, Roberts turned my 12-year-old historical consciousness upside down by making Benedict Arnold out to be a hero, by showing how Arnold’s military skill accounted for the deferral of one British invasion of the northern United States and the defeat of another. Roberts described in terms more vivid than all but the best historians what it was like to fight a lake battle in upstate New York in late autumn, be inoculated against smallpox, and deal with the stupidities of legislative politics. Like his contemporaries Walter Edmonds (Drums Along the Mohawk) and Esther Forbes (Johnny Tremain), he made the colonial and revolutionary past live.

The Landmark series of histories for young people, launched in 1948 by Bennett Cerf of Random House, has since gone out of print.

And then I discovered old copies of American Heritage magazine going back to the early 1960’s. Once a minor publication by the American Association for State and Local History, it was relaunched in 1954 as a handsome, 120-page hardcover magazine. The October 1961 issue was fairly typical. At the top of the masthead stood editorial director Joseph J. Thorndike, who after a stint at Time had been recruited to be the managing editor of Life. The senior editor was Bruce Catton, the prolific popular historian of the Civil War; the managing editor was Eric Larrabee, who later wrote one of the most thorough and accessible studies of Franklin Roosevelt as commander in chief. Assistant and associate editors included Richard Ketchum and Stephen Sears, excellent historians of the American Revolution and the Civil War. Authors in that issue included Hugh MacLennan, a prize-winning professor of English at McGill University writing about Canadian voyageurs; Mark Schorer, a University of California, Berkeley professor and biographer of Sinclair Lewis on the writing of Main Street; and John Lukacs, one of the most original historians of twentieth-century Europe writing about George Bancroft, one of the fathers of American history. It wasn’t fluff.

There was a progression here for a young person fascinated by the past and able to engage it at a number of levels, one which unquestionably played a role in shaping my attitudes, and not only mine, to politics. These were works of patriotic history, celebrating the American past and American heroes. They did not, nor did they need to, gloss over the stains and horrors. The heroes could be southern senators standing up to the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920’s or Chief Joseph leading his small tribe in a fight against the United States Army in the 1870s. And the tales could include accounts of political corruption, ambiguous loyalties, and mayhem—patriotic history does not have to conceal any of that, nor need it ignore the ambiguities of the past. But the key was that this was my history, to own and to celebrate, even though my grandparents were immigrants.

A shared story

Particularly for Americans, patriotic history is a kind of glue for an extraordinarily diverse republic. Lincoln used a patriotic version of the nation’s revolutionary past and founding generation to hold the Union together and provide meaning and redemptive hope after the slaughter of hundreds of thousands during the Civil War. The Gettysburg Address, after all, begins by recalling the Declaration of Independence and defining the meaning of the Revolution. And Lincoln in turn became a figure to inspire succeeding generations.

Yet patriotic history is more suspect these days than it was when I was its young student, 50 years ago. In 2014, Kenneth Pomeranz, completing his term as leader of the American Historical Association, chose as the topic of his presidential address, “Histories for a Less National Age.” While grudgingly conceding that nations or states remain important because they have armies, and acknowledging that historians might do some limited good by teaching about the United States, he generally welcomed the shift to spatially and temporally broader history, sweeping across continents and centuries. It is striking that just as he gave that address the forces of nationalism—in Russia, China, western Europe, and most definitely the United States—gave a set of roars that indicated that they were very far from dead. It was an instructive error for an historian to make.

George Orwell famously observed in 1945 that nationalism is “the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects,” whereas patriotism is “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world.” In practice, however, modern academic historians, who are wary of nationalism for reasons good and bad, often conflate it with patriotism. And this is where some of the great divide between contemporary academic history and patriotic history has opened up. When the academy questions the very utility of national history, by necessity it undermines the possibility of patriotic history as well.

Civic education requires students to engage with their history—not only to know whence conventions, principles, and laws have come, but also to develop an attachment to them. And civic education is also inextricably interwoven with patriotism, without which commitment to the values that make free government possible will not exist. Civic education depends not only on an understanding of fundamental processes and institutions (for example, why there is a Supreme Court, or why only Congress gets to raise taxes or declare war) but on a commitment to those processes and institutions, and on some kind of admiration for the country that created them and the men and women who have shaped and lived within them. In a crisis, it is not enough to know how the walls were constructed and the plumbing laid out in the house that Madison, Washington, and Lincoln built. One has to think that the architects did remarkable work, that as their legatees we need to preserve the building even if we modernize it, and that it is a precious edifice like none other.

The triangular relationship among civic education, historical knowledge, and patriotism seems in our day to be broken.
Survey after survey delivers dismal verdicts about what Americans know about the government under which they live. For example, in a recent survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, just two out of five respondents could identify the three branches of government and one out of five could not identify any branch of government. Nearly half thought that illegal immigrants have no rights under the Constitution. Another survey indicated that only one third of Americans would pass a U.S. citizenship test.

The issue appears not to be a lack of civics courses per se, which are required in the vast majority of states. Rather, the issue seems to be the unmooring of civics from history, and in particular history in the curriculum at colleges and universities where the high school teachers of tomorrow are trained.

In a blistering article in the national security-oriented online publication, War on the Rocks, my colleagues at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies Francis Gavin and Hal Brands declare that the historical profession is “committing slow-motion suicide.” Able historians themselves, they point to studies showing a decline of 30 percent in history majors at U.S. institutions of higher education in the last 10 years alone—the steepest enrollment slide of any of the humanities. The brunt of their critique is that the discipline of history has walked away from some of the subfields that matter most to the shaping of engaged citizens—politics, statecraft, and war. Meanwhile, fellow historians Fredrik Logevall and Kenneth Osgood have found similar patterns in hiring in the profession; in looking at H-Net, the leading website for academic jobs in history, they found a grand total of 15 advertisements in 10 years for tenure-track junior historians specializing in American political history.

Members of the historical profession might, with reason, push back on this bleak picture, noting the robust health of organizations like the Society for Military History. But the truth remains that traditional forms of history—political, diplomatic, and military—have been increasingly pushed to the margins of the field; that departments of history have shrunk rapidly because students vote with their feet; and that churning out fewer history majors (who in turn are likely to be the future history teachers in middle and high schools) bodes poorly for the future of civic education. If, moreover, those fewer students who remain are themselves only barely familiar with the kinds of history that appeal to young people and can form them as citizens, the cycle becomes a vicious one. If the nuts and bolts of American political and military history are not taught in universities, the chances that they will be passed to a younger generation diminishes.

Beyond the academy

It is not the case that Americans in general have fallen out of love with their own past. Large numbers visit battlefields and museums—a million a year to Gettysburg, more than that many to Mount Vernon, almost three quarters of a million to the National World War II Museum, and six-digit numbers even to more remote sites. Popular historians do well—David McCullough and Ron Chernow have repeatedly written best-selling historical biographies. On the whole, historical television series may not quite draw the 14 million viewers that Ken Burns’ 1990 Civil Wars series did, but they have done respectably enough. John Adams, for example, attracted something like 2.5 million viewers.

The problem lies not in lack of interest, but in a tension between the academic historical community and both the reading public and popular writers. It is not enough to have best-selling books or television series about the American past, though those are welcome: there is a need for a general awareness of that past that has to be spread indirectly through college and university education and thence to middle and high schools. And while the history of the academy has to be somewhat different than the history of Netflix or the airport bookstand, they cannot be too far apart.

That gap has not always existed. It was possible, for example, for Allan Nevins, an enormously prolific writer about the Civil War and a biographer of Charles Fremont, John D. Rockeviller, and Henry Ford, to be a tenured professor at Columbia and president of the American Historical Association—without a doctorate degree in history. That would be unthinkable today. Yet a contemporary of Nevins who did have a doctorate, Harvard University’s Samuel Eliot Morison, was similarly popular, similarly prolific, and similarly influential.

The Morisons and Nevins of the previous century believed that they had a duty to illuminate the American past for their fellow citizens. They could be nuanced and critical while respecting the patriotic uses of history.

In current times, the weight in the academic historical profession has been, for some time, hostile to that and to anything that smacked of such an approach, making the case against such story telling with a purpose. In a critical review of David McCullough’s biography of John Adams, historian Sean Wilentz of Princeton University lashed not only the author but what he described as the American Heritage style, “brilliant in its detail, evocative in its storytelling, but crushingly sentimental and vacuous,” which he believed had infected Ken Burns’ Civil War docu-series as well. Wilentz celebrated as an alternative Bernard DeVoto, a once well-known popular historian whose work painted a critical, fuller picture of the past and remains well worth reading.

These wars have continued. When in 2011 Harvard historian Jill Lepore published a book on the original Tea Party and its resonance today, she was taken to task by the dean of early American historians, Gordon S. Wood. “Americans seem to have a special need for these authentic historical figures in the here and now. It is very easy for academic historians to mock this special need, and Harvard historian Jill Lepore, as a staff writer for The New Yorker, is an expert at mocking,” Wood deplored this disposition.

After criticizing Lepore for her contemptuous tone toward a political movement that she despised (the Tea Party), Wood argued that societies need memory and a useful and a purposeful past—in other words, heritage. Modern critical historical writing, he said, seeks simply to establish what happened. It is “all head and no heart,” Wood wrote, and citing his own teacher, Bernard Bailyn, argued that it was important to understand that such history could not meet a society’s needs, and something else is required.

This is the nub of the matter. Even if the academy generated more historians (like Wood, Wilentz, and Lepore, for example) who can write compellingly and lucidly for lay audiences, and even if they turned their attention to politics of the kind that citizens need and average readers find interesting, there is bound to be a tension between the outlook of the modern analytic historian and that of the patriotic historian.

Searching for inspiration

Patriotic history involves, for example, heroes. Most academic historians who write biography (not the most popular genre in universities) specialize in the study of clay feet. Hence David Herbert Donald’s biography of Lincoln depicts a president stumbling from decision to decision and yet somehow presiding over a triumphant Union. Doris Kearns Goodwin—a popular historian—gives a much more sympathetic account in Team of Rivals. Perhaps because she had had closer connections to the world of actual politics, her book is the more popular, and more admiring, one. One may even think it is in some ways the more essentially accurate portrait.

Americans need history that educates and informs, but also one that inspires. If, for example, one gives equal weight to John F. Kennedy’s sordid sexual behavior and the soaring rhetoric of his inaugural speech; if one concentrates as much on the personal peccadilloes, inconsistencies, and mixed motives of the Founders as on the marvel that is the Constitution that they created; if the shameful relocation of American citizens of Japanese ancestry to concentration camps gets more play than the D-Day landings or Battle of Midway, history cannot serve that inspirational function. And then, in a crisis, you are stuck, because you have no great figures to remember, no memory of great challenges overcome, no examples of persistence and struggle to embrace.

A notable recent work of scholarship, Richard White’s account of Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, The Republic for Which it Stands, is something of a warning. It is a volume in the excellent series produced by the Oxford History of the United States, which also includes James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom (on the Civil War) and Wood’s Empire of Liberty (on the early republic). Like the other volumes, it is lucid and masterly in its scholarship. But its relentless depiction of an irredeemably sordid past, blotted by the oppression of the African American population of the South, massacre of Indians, despoiling of the environment, horrors of tenement life, and political cupidity, leaves the reader thinking that perhaps the only good thing to be said about the United States during this period is that by contrast, it makes today’s America look good. One could write a history that acknowledges all those things—yet somehow also celebrates the great works of literature and engineering from Mark Twain to the Brooklyn Bridge, or the extraordinary political achievement of the reunification of a country that had experienced four years of unremitting bloodshed, or the heroism (quiet in one case, noisy in the other) of Booker T. Washington and a young Theodore Roosevelt.

Wood recognized in his review of Lepore’s book about the Tea Party that the two forms of history—critical and patriotic—can only coexist, but rarely if ever coincide. Some particularly gifted historians can pull it off, such as David Hackett Fischer, in his magnificent books Paul Revere’s Ride and Washington’s Crossing. But for the most part, the two forms of history have different purposes and tap different skills and sensibilities. The challenge is the management of their coexistence, and in particular the recognition by scholars that both are necessary.

Popular and patriotic historians may grumble at reviews of their work by their academic colleagues but in truth, pay them little heed. For academic historians, however, the sentiments can be more acidic. Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, put it sharply in a guarded defense of Ken Burns: “It’s called sour grapes. Put simply, Burns has managed to engage a huge public audience. And that makes him suspect among members of our guild, who write almost entirely for each other. We pretend we don’t envy his fame and fortune, but of course we do. We’re like high-school kids who don’t get asked to the prom, then say they never wanted to go in the first place.”

Zimmerman had begun his career as a high-school social studies teacher, closer to the real needs of the American public for historical education. He noted that writing for lay audiences often counts against a young historian and deplored the guild mentality of a history profession that too often looks down on public engagement. In so doing, he made a point that cannot be put too forcefully. Unless history departments, and university administrators behind them, begin to weight public engagement as a useful academic function, they are likely to pull their discipline further into bitter irrelevance.

A reversal of this trend is not inconceivable, particularly for those faculty members who have tenure, but also have to deal with tight-fisted college administrations in an era when higher education itself is being turned upside down, and when it is becoming harder to sustain departments that do not pay their way with student seats in classrooms. History departments’ disdain over the last few decades for both popular history and the historians who engage the American public may not survive provosts unwilling to hire more expensive professors teaching fewer courses to fewer students.

Moreover, the educational establishment itself has, on occasion, changed its approach to history. After a series of critiques, the College Board revised its course framework for Advanced Placement History. “AP United States History,” in its 2017 version, is both sophisticated and sober, but offers plenty of opportunities to explore learning objectives like “explain how ideas about democracy, freedom, and individualism found expression in the development of cultural values, political institutions, and American identity.”

And then there is politics itself. In 2016, the political tide turned. Instead of a desperately unhappy conservative opposition to a liberal president turning to history for inspiration and consolation and meeting the scorn of liberal history professors, it was the liberals who found themselves looking for a usable past. They saw a president they believed to be a potential tyrant, and a Republican party that seemed to be mastering the legislative and judicial branches of government. They now needed the heroes and the inspiring moments from the past to convince themselves that the country could get through difficult times.

Interestingly enough, it was Jill Lepore who found herself doing in a different way what she had disparaged the Tea Party movement doing. In 2018 she published an ambitious and engrossing one-volume history of the United States, These Truths. It is filled with patriotic sentiment. “The United States rests on a dedication to equality, which is chiefly a moral idea, rooted in Christianity, but it rests too, on a dedication to inquiry, fearless and unflinching,” she writes. The book concludes with the old metaphors of the ship of state in a storm, with Americans called upon to fell majestic pines and “hew timbers of cedar and oak into planks” to rebuild the ship. Depending on one’s literary tastes, the language is either florid or evocative, but it was clear that in the profound crisis Lepore saw in the Trump presidency, history had to come to the rescue. Possibly without recognizing it, she too had become a patriotic historian.

What, then is to be done?

We can begin by recognizing that although America’s renewed focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education for K-12 has had some beneficial effects, it is vital to pay heed to supposedly softer subjects—history foremost among them. Evidence suggests that recent focus on STEM as well as on standardized tests in reading and math (and therefore preparing for tests) has come at the expense of civics, social studies, and history. Educational reformers should realize that the time may have come to rein in the obsession with formal testing and to restore some balance to curricula.

While little can be done in the short run about what has happened to history as a discipline, or how history teachers are trained in universities, there is a lot that can be done in summer workshops or through creative forms of part-time education, particularly online. If many conventional universities do not offer adequate instruction in history for teachers, entrepreneurially minded competitors can do so, and with national reach by virtue of online education. All of these are opportunities for creative grant giving and philanthropy.

The federal government’s role is one to be approached with care. Part of the strength of the traditional American educational system has been that it has been decentralized and competitive, and one can argue that attempts to create standardized tests and standards do as much damage as good. Moreover, particularly in the field of history, the temptations for ideological fiddling are too great to make conservatives, in particular, feel comfortable. But there are two areas in which there is good to be done.

The first is through the National Endowment for the Humanities, which has sponsored historical work to include workshops for teachers as well as original productions of videos and the like. The second, and even more important, is the role of the Federal government in properly funding and sustaining national historic sites to include battlefields, monuments, and historical homes, but also the Library of Congress and National Archives with their magnificent collections of historical documents. These offer many opportunities for the millions of Americans who are interested in engaging their past to do so.

There is also a role for entrepreneurship and philanthropy to play. For example, organizations can support bringing back some of the older material discussed at the beginning of this paper and creating new sources of such work. Further, they might expand opportunities for students to learn history through experiences outside of the classroom. While patriotic history may be imbibed inside a school, it can also be found by singing along to the Hamilton score (see “Hamilton Goes to High School,” features, Summer 2017), while camping on the Lewis and Clark trail, watching Ken Burns’ The Civil War, or even by finding ways to get into the hands of a curious 12-year-old a novel that she or he will never forget. Any good teacher, at any level, knows that the key to success lies in multiple ways in to a young person’s consciousness. “Material things, things that move, living things, human actions and account of human action, will win the attention better than anything that is more abstract,” William James wrote in Talks to Teachers.

There is no more natural subject of fascination than history, particularly the history of one’s own country, and particularly if that country is the United States. The decline of patriotic history is a severe problem for civic education—but fortunately, there are many ways of mitigating and even reversing it.

Patriotic history is a sensitive topic. It can take false and even dangerous forms. The Lost Cause narrative of the Civil War, for example, masked the reality of slavery as the central cause of the bloodiest conflict in American history. But if done well, as many historians, museum designers, and custodians of national parks, public, semi-public, and private institutions have shown, it can both educate and inspire. And it is, in any case, inescapable. Without civics, our political institutions are reduced to valueless mechanisms. Without history, there is no civic education, and without civic education there are no citizens. Without citizens, there is no free republic. The stakes, in other words, could not be higher.

Eliot Cohen is the Dean of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. This essay is adapted from the forthcoming book, How to Educate an American, published by Templeton Press.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020


The result, he has concluded, is that sometimes “children no longer know any history.”
Gertrude Himmelfarb, The New History and the Old
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987, 29

It is not surprising to find the same filtering-down process occurring in France, the home of the new history, but it is curious to observe the dismay of the Socialist government when confronted with the practical effects of a social history that is otherwise so congenial to them. In August 1983 a cabinet member discussed a recent survey showing that only a third of the children entering secondary school could give the date of the French Revolution. “The deficiency of teaching history,” François Mitterand declared, “has become a national danger.” Since then there has been much talk, among the parties of the Left as well as of the Right, about the need to restore some sense of political and narrative history, with an emphasis on notable individuals and within a framework of nationality. Even a few Annalistes are beginning to have second thoughts. Marc Ferro, codirector of the Annales and director of studies in the social sciences at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, described the widespread practice in France of teaching history by having schoolchildren compile “single-street histories” of their own neighborhoods, thus showing them how to use documents and to question supposed facts rather than merely memorize dates and events. The result, he has concluded, is that sometimes “children no longer know any history.”

That it is not only children who “no longer know any history” because they do not know any political history is occasionally conceded by other social historians. The American historian I quoted, who confessed that he could not “get to” the founding of the United States, has his confreres abroad. The eminent Annaliste François Furet has commented on the neglect of “one of the most classic areas of historiography,” the French Revolution—classic because it inevitably calls for narrative treatment and also because it establishes “politics as the fountainhead and instrument of freedom.” Yet this subject was “virtually absent,” he found, from both the prewar and postwar sets of the Annales, “as if this locus classicus of national history were precisely the special preserve of the ‘other’ history. Eric Hobsbawm too has pointed to “a possible weakness of the Annales approach, namely its difficulty in coping with what you call the great formative political events in a country’s history: the Risorgimento in Italy, or indeed the French Revolution in France.”

Saturday, February 1, 2020

ROGER SCRUTON, 1944-2020

Daniel J. Hannan, MEP

“Sir Roger Scruton, 1944-2020,
A thinking man’s right-thinking man”

Washington Examiner, January 21, 2020 (excerpt)

Sir Roger Scruton said: “Conservatism starts from a sentiment that all mature people can readily share: the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed but not easily created. 

This is especially true of the good things that come to us as collective assets: peace, freedom, law, civility, public spirit, the security of property and family life, in all of which we depend on the cooperation of others while having no means singlehandedly to obtain it. 

In respect of such things, the work of destruction is quick, easy and exhilarating; the work of creation slow, laborious and dull.”