Blog post:

William Hogeland on not learning history

This is historian William Hogeland responding to yet another poll that demonstrates a basic lack of public knowledge about American history and civics:

There’s a widely held idea, I think manifestly false, that arguments like these, over interpretation, can’t be profitably held until people are in possession of the same set of neutral, agreed-upon facts. Hence the endless force-feeding of the same baby food that people keep spitting out. To me, the real “American ignorance” problem lies in a patronizing tendency by educators, writers, public historians, and cultural institutions (hello, PBS) to seek to correct ignorance by imposing as indispensable fact what are actually overdetermined interpretations, even while denying every interesting social, economic, and political ramification of those interpretations.

In other words, history isn’t interesting until it’s contested. Hogeland’s example is the argument that the Articles of Confederation were only really bad for the “founding fathers” and other members of the upper class, and that most of the country didn’t need a new Constitution. Which is an interesting and clever thing to consider, even if it’s wrong. On the other hand, when a textbook lists structural weaknesses of the Articles as a reason for reform, it’s usually not interesting. It’s something to be memorized.

I think we all try not to learn about things that aren’t interesting. History is an easy topic to ruin for students, because historians walk a fine line between pandering to too many readers and being too arcane for any but a few.