Does History Really Matter?
by Linda Salvucci

Excerpt:  HM! November 2012

Does history really matter? This question keeps posing itself to me again and again from a variety of angles these days. As we prepare for our annual Board meeting in Baltimore on November 2 and 3, I am thinking long and hard, of course, about how best to fulfill our mission--to lead in the teaching and learning of history--in these most challenging of times. NCHE has labored diligently over the past few years to keep support for professional development for history educators somewhere—anywhere—in federal, state and local budgets, as well as to protect or restore those precious minutes devoted to history instruction in K-8 classrooms across the nation. In the process, many of our members have grown adept at articulating quite eloquently why history matters and why it must remain a core discipline in any quality 21st century curriculum. But our words often fall on deaf ears. Why? In his thoughtful essay for this issue of the newsletter, one of our most Distinguished Advisors, Professor Gordon Wood, argues that an alarmingly wide gap has developed between those trained historians who write for largely academic audiences and those authors who write for the general public. The public that Wood refers to consisted of “educated readers” in the 1950s and 60s. But where are—and who are— these educated readers today? They certainly appear to be in short supply when it comes to expressing support for the study of history in the schools. 

Professor Wood lays considerable blame for this problem upon history professors who produce specialized (read “dull”) monographs necessary to win tenure and promotion, those experts who write, above all, for each other. But even if the work of our academic colleagues were to become “less technical and boring,” who is now equipped to read and appreciate history? In recent separate essays, both Anthony Grafton and Alan Kulikoff point out that the number of history majors began to decline in the 1970s. Thus, those making, influencing and voting upon public policy today are not likely to have majored in history or even to have taken any history courses as undergraduates, since many universities dropped a requirement in history from their general degree plans in the 1970s and 80s as well. Therefore, it is not just the current generation of schoolchildren who is not learning history; their parents and even grandparents never were exposed to anything resembling History’s Habits of Mind. Many do read the best-selling “non-academic historians” that Wood identifies and this is great, since these popular authors are masterful writers. But few get past the story-telling, inspirational, and celebratory nature of much of this genre to incorporate the principles of historical thinking into narratives and worldviews.

This brings me to the more sobering point of how history and historical thinking matter. Careful
analysis and critical reflection are integral components of historical thinking, as are the recognition of multiple perspectives and the judicious use of evidence. To wit, evidence is supposed to play at least some role in constructing historical arguments and making assertions. In addition, experienced practitioners of historical thinking do not abuse the past by ransacking it for pre-determined lessons learned, or cherry-pick for examples to buttress particular political and cultural agendas. While this election cycle has featured some of the latter distortions of history, it has also been full of the most extraordinary, if not unprecedented, disregard for “facts.” Instead of merely bending “the facts” to fit a particular point of view, many now simply dismiss their value and relevance outright. Beliefs and opinions trump evidence of any sort. “I don’t accept your facts” or “I don’t believe your fact checkers!” are the new normal of political discourse. And if the quest for some measure of objectivity remains—with a nod to the late Peter Novick— ‘a noble dream,’ it seems to matter less and less. This is a dangerous path for a citizenry to take. The past may not be prologue for most of today’s “educated readers,” but the skills acquired in learning how to think historically are more necessary than ever. As history educators and NCHE members, we stand on the front lines in addressing this most troubling state of affairs. On our shoulders rests the responsibility for training a new and improved audience for great historical writing and thinking.

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