Orange County Register
“They don’t know history, but they are making it. But what are they making?”
– Victor Serge, “The Conquered City,” 1932
In contrast to the physical sciences, and even other social sciences, the study of history is, by nature, subjective. There is no real mathematical formula to assess the past. It is more an art, or artifice, than a science.
Yet how we present and think of the past can shape our future as much as the statistics-laden studies of economists and other social scientists. Throughout recorded time, historians have reflected on the past to show the way to the future and suggest those values that we should embrace or, at other times, reject.
Today we are going through, at both the college and high school levels, a major, largely negative, reassessment of the American past. In some ways, this suggests parallels to the strategy of the Bolsheviks about whom Serge wrote. Under the communists, particularly in the Stalinist epoch, the past was twisted into a tale suited to the needs of the state and socialist ideology. This extended even to Bolshevik history, as Josef Stalin literally airbrushed his most hated rivals – notably Leon Trotsky, founder and people’s commissar of the Red Army – into historical oblivion.
In the modern reformulation, America – long celebrated as a beacon of enlightenment and justice – now is often presented as just another tyrannical racist and sexist state. The founding fathers, far from being constitutional geniuses, are dismissed as racist thugs and suitable targets of general opprobrium.
Initially, the progressive assault made some sense. Traditional “civics” education often presented American history in an overly airbrushed manner. Many of the nation’s worst abuses – the near-genocide of American Indians, slavery, discrimination against women, depredations against the working class and the environment – were often whitewashed. These shortcomings now have been substantially corrected in recent decades, from what I can see in my children’s textbooks.