The University Bookman


Volume 19, Number 3 (Spring 1979)

What Is Happening to History?

John Lukacs

In 1979 millions of Americans will have spent twenty-three to twenty-six years (about one-third of their expectable lifespan) in schools without having had a single history course. During the late Sixties the majority of colleges and universities abandoned all history requirements; in a minority of higher institutions the latter survive in drastically diluted or diminished forms. For every four or five undergraduates who chose a history major fifteen years ago there are now one or two. The decline in the number of graduate students in history has been even more precipitous. In the past fifteen years, among the more than two thousand colleges and universities in the United States—employing nearly half a million teachers—there have been but a few hundred new teaching jobs open to holders of advanced degrees in history, most of these appointments of temporary nature.

About twenty years ago books were appearing on the intellectual scene with titles like Post-Historic Man. A little later Marshall McLuhan came forth to propose his argument, with an unusually complex vocabulary, the essence of which was that pictures were replacing books, and that the epoch of the image was about to replace the epoch of the word. These developments seem to be but confirmations of these generalizations.

At the same time consider the following:

In 1979 there are in the United States more than three thousand historical societies, most of them in small towns, nearly twice as many as twenty-five years ago.

During the past twenty years, when the circulation of most periodicals declined, the only popular periodical that has earned its way without advertising has been American Heritage magazine.

Since about 1945, in “hardback” commercial publishing, popular histories have regularly outsold popular fiction.

Historical bestsellers now exist on all kinds of levels. Many of them have sold in the millions. The trend may have begun with Toynbee’s abridged Study of History in 1947, which tens of thousands bought but few read, through books such as Tuchman’s The Guns of August, Lasch’s Eleanor and Franklin, Bishop’s The Day Lincoln Was Shot, Ryan’s The Longest Day, etc., books which millions have bought and read.

Since about 1960, we have a new kind of bestselling phenomenon: varieties of books, the substance of which is some kind of reconstruction of a certain historical past. Ragtime and Roots come to mind, huge publishing successes during the last three years. Many things suggest that this new kind of hybrid historical genre is not only growing in popularity, but that it may eventually overwhelm the genre of the novel.[1]

Another example of this burgeoning of the historical genre is that of instant-replay histories, such as Theodore H. White’s The Making of the President, a heavy quadrennial bestseller of a kind that occurred to no publisher and, presumably, to no author, fifty or a hundred years ago.

Television and the movies are conforming to the same popular tendency. Example: the increasing frequency of cinematic “documentaries,” or the success of social-historical soap operas like Upstairs, Downstairs.

In 1976 a survey of the Harvard class of 1968 showed that more than sixty percent of them were engaged in restoring old houses.

Upon reading this survey I asked my students: How many would choose to live in an old house, how many in a new house, all other things (comforts, neighborhood, price, etc.) being equal? Without exception they chose old houses. I found this interesting, to say the least: when in 1955 students learned that my wife and I, newly married, were living in a restored old house, they thought that this was very eccentric.

I am a member, and former chairman, of the Planning Commission in Schuylkill Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania, where old houses were demolished for the sake of highways, office buildings, industrial plants, and suburban-type modern developments twenty years ago without any opposition from the people. During the past dozen years, the preservation of older houses has become a popular issue among my fellow citizens, no matter what their neighborhood or their social or economic status. (A minor but significant point: more people are interested in “conservation” and “restoration” than in “ecology,” a word which, to them, has acquired a faddish and abstract-scientific touch.)

The word “modern” has hardly any appeal for the younger generation, who for many years now have been flaunting the outdated character of their clothes, gear, posters, and accumulated junk. One of the most derogatory words in their limited vocabulary is “plastic”: a shiny and modern word in the 1920s, indeed, as late as 1945.

In 1933 George Orwell wrote in A Clergyman’s Daughter about lower-class children in London: “History was the hardest thing to teach them . . . A boy of the middle classes, no matter how poorly educated, has at least a mental picture of a Roman senator, of an Elizabethan Englishman, of a French courtier . . . But for these children these words were incomprehensible, they could not imagine them at all.” This condition no longer prevails (perhaps, in part, because of television).

The 1876 Philadelphia Centennial exhibition was dedicated to machinery, not to history. The buildings housed exhibits of industry and of manufacture. Americans took enormous pride in the mechanized achievements of their present; their interest in history was almost nonexistent, as shown by the nature of the exhibits, and by the character of the perorations. The Bicentennial, in 1976, was entirely consumed by history. (By history on all kinds of levels, to be sure, overwhelmed by tasteless junk and souvenirs, but by history nonetheless; and there are reasons to believe that it was precisely the commercialization and the tawdry publicization of the Bicentennial that left large numbers of people dissatisfied with it.) What pleased and excited the imagination of Americans in the Bicentennial year was a parade of old-fashioned sailing ships.

“It is the nature and the duty of an American to rise above the station of his parents in society,” wrote an ornament of the New York Bar in 1868. As late as thirty years ago many Americans, especially the children of first-generation immigrants, were ashamed of their parents; they sought, therefore, refuge in the ephemeral and standardized conformities of American life. Most Americans knew nothing about their great-grandparents; as late as twenty-five years ago more than half of them could not name all four of their grandparents. This is no longer so. What is more important, most Americans are no longer ashamed of their ancestry; the opposite is true.

On an autumn Sunday evening in 1977, I am in the house of friends in a Philadelphia suburb, for a buffet supper. The house was built around the turn of the century. My friends have a penchant for Victorian furniture—not altogether my taste, but this is not what matters: what matters is what springs to my mind as I stand in a corner and contemplate this evening scene.

I see high ceilings, large mahogany pieces of furniture, massive sideboards, a piano, a harvest bouquet for a centerpiece, ironstone plates, large-size cutlery, thick curtains with large folds suggesting a certain kind of femininity, and carpets darkly florid; the electric light from the unwieldy chandelier shines like old light; it is all, comfortable, slightly stiff, heavy with cushioning, pale, brown, and warm.

What occurs to me is this: If my great-grandfather would reappear here, in 1977, coming from 1877, much of this scene would be easily comprehensible to him: he would find a few things to be strange and curious but he would find much of it essentially familiar.

And if his great-grandfather had appeared in 1877, after a century of absence? Nothing of the kind. There were very few people, certainly not in the United States, who lived in a 1777 house in 1877. How many rooms, in Europe or in America, were filled in 1877 with the furniture of 1777? Not one in fifty thousand, I think.

There are many rooms and many houses like this one now. But there is more to this. It is not a matter of things alone. I look at the people. Many of the women wear long skirts and long-sleeved blouses; the drapery conforms to them. Many of them wear their hair long; many of the men wear beards. They are lawyers, bureaucrats, teachers, architects, representatives of a professional class. They stand in clusters, they talk in moderate tones. Some of them are talking about old things, from the history of this city a century ago, about odd details of which many of them—and they are not professional historians—are quite knowledgeable and aware. In sum, they are—physically and mentally—much closer to the world of 1877 than their ancestors in 1877 were to the world that was then one hundred years ago.

And this is something new.

The Acceleration of History? Henry and Brooks Adams were quite wrong about this. The Virgin and the Dynamo? These people have no interest in the Virgin; but, then, they have no interest in the dynamo, either. They are attracted by the reality of the past. The great Dutch historian Huizinga knew, better than Adams, what was going on in the twentieth century. Few people were aware as was Huizinga of the corrupt superficialities of this century. Yet he wrote in 1934: “Historical thinking has entered our very blood.”

There exists now in the United States a widespread, and deep-seated, appetite for history—more exactly, for physical and mental reminders of the past—which, in the entire history of this country, has had no precedent.

This appetite developed at the very time when much of the teaching of history was thoughtlessly and shamefully abandoned by those responsible for it.

The reasons for this massive thoughtlessness may be summed up as follows:

In the first place—in order, and perhaps also of importance—the vast majority of professional historians have not the slightest interest in what happens to teaching in the secondary schools. I know of no country where the worlds of the college professor and that of the high school teacher are as separate as they are in the United States; they have less in common than in the nineteenth-century world of the bourgeois and that of the beggar.

At the same time when the college and university professorate were riding high in power and prestige (circa 1960–1965), the enormous educational bureaucracy ruling American high schools eliminated the traditional European and American history courses, with the admitted purpose of making high schools more relevant to the modern world (of the realities of which this bureaucracy remained of course entirely ignorant). All of this happened in the name of a stagnant and wholly outdated social scientism which swallowed up courses of history like a marsh that swallows up the courses of creeks.

The professorate, blissfully preoccupied with the delightful intrigues consequent to its bureaucratization, paid not the least attention to such mundane matters. Indeed, in accord with its own simian inclinations for demonstrating the capacity of its members to sit on boughs and saw them off simultaneously, it contributed to the abandonment of traditional history teaching within its own institutions. It put up but a weak and disorganized and unconvincing opposition to the elimination of history requirements within its own colleges. It went along with the confection of all kinds of non-history history courses, with fashionable subjects such as Feminism, Africanism, Sexuality (courses enthusiastically proposed by younger department members, accompanied by the occasional clucking of their older colleagues whose smiles shone with all of the gleam of a silver plate on a coffin). It took a certain pleasure in talking up the two novel fads of Psycho-History and Quantification, the recondite characteristics of which would further contribute to the image of the Historian as a Social Scientist of a premier kind, a practitioner of skills and a possessor of arcane knowledge to which the artless and uninstructed public could not hope to aspire.

Projecting the continuation of whatever seems to be going on (the occupational disease of most intellectuals and bureaucrats) the professorate, during the corrupt and inflated 1960s, kept on turning out more and more graduate students ad maiorem professori pecuniam, until it suddenly came face to face with the condition that teaching jobs for history graduates in the United States had become as rare as berries for birds in the winter.

It is both symptomatic and telling of the mental state of professional historians that during their belated self-searching and occupational analysis, among all of the above reasons they have been concentrating exclusively on this last one—in itself an effect as much as a cause. The greater issue—the increasing divergence in interest for academic and popular history—occurred, or occurs, to the majority of professional historians not at all.

What we should recognize, therefore, is not the ebb and flow of academic and intellectual fads, but the bureaucratization of American life. What this means is that professional historians will have less and less to do with the living history of the American people.

To give but one example, relating directly to the subject of this article: the unprecedented appetite for history which has developed among the American people in recent decades not only had no consequences in their schools, but the public recognition of this very fact—and it is a fact—has been entirely nonexistent.

This is one of the tragic ironies of history in our otherwise “open” and vastly documented democratic age: what happens on the surface often has no connection with the real currents of thoughts and inclinations among large numbers of people, with the deeper and more enduring currents of events.

It is true that, at the time of this writing, certain universities and colleges have been restoring history requirements, here and there: but this reversal has been too modest and, as yet, too short-lived to constitute a general trend.

And, since history—surely in the short run, and sometimes even in the long run—consists not so much in what happens but in what people think happens, when people are told that they live in a post-historic age, they may think and act and choose accordingly.[2] We have to face the possibility: when publishers and television producers convince themselves (in no matter how ephemeral a fashion) that history does not “pay,” many of the earlier listed evidences of a public appetite for history might disappear, at least for a long time.

The silly term “self-fulfilling prophecy” does not explain this phenomenon which is, rather, the result of that stagnation in the movement of ideas about which Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America.

And, just as the massive bureaucratization of life has come out of democratization, the near-abolition of history (and also of other kinds of learning) from our schools may have been the end-result of universal education. Few people realize that universal education and the teaching of history in schools developed at the same time, less than one hundred and fifty years ago; that history was not taught anywhere during the “historic centuries,” just as during the great centuries of Western art no one knew anything about aesthetics.

In sum, popular interest in history preceded the teaching of history in schools; and there are many reasons to believe that it will survive it too.

In the small college where I have been teaching for more than thirty years we are making a modest attempt toward some kind of a restoration of learning. We are now offering a so-called “History School” program (the designation may be somewhat grandiloquent, but, having racked my brains, I could not find a more appropriate term for it). It simply means an option for certain students during their undergraduate studies. Its purpose is to broaden as well as to deepen the background of certain majors. The student who chooses the “History School” option within a major will, upon completion of four years, have an understanding of the major subject through a more-or-less thorough acquaintance with the historical development of it.

It is not a “minor” in history. Students electing the “History School” option will have to take a minimum of six historically grounded courses among the offerings in their majors. Historically grounded courses in English, for example, include courses such as Shakespeare, or Poetry of the English Renaissance; in Political Science they include courses such as Ancient and Medieval Political Theories or Socialism and the New Left. Conversely, they do not include courses such as Journalism or the Short Story in English; or Methods of Political Analysis in Political Science, for example.

The historically grounded courses are marked by an asterisk in the college catalogue. At this time this option is available for majors in five fields; we hope to be able to extend this option to at least six more departments thereafter.

Because of present conditions, whereby most students arrive in colleges knowing hardly anything about the historical substance—I write “substance,” not merely “background”—of their projected fields of study, such an option may be eminently, desirable. Yet the foundations to which I have written have shown no interest in this program. We have now started it with the aid of a modest, so-called “pilot,” grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Were it not for the fortunate condition that the bureaucratic practices of academic life are limited in a small Catholic college such as Chestnut Hill, my original proposal for such a program would not have had a ghost of a chance. Even here we have certain problems with incomprehension among some of the faculty members who received their professional training in the Sixties. But when I read of the public soul-searching going on in our most powerful and rich and prestigious institutions of higher learning, I often feel that I must thank God for having placed me thirty years ago where I am; when I look at the “new” curriculum offered by Harvard I see but another litter of academic mice scurrying forth from the tremulous caves of what passes for a mountain; and I am saddened, to the point of despair, as I contemplate yet another example of the overwhelming failure of life in America, which is that of waste—the endless waste not so much of the environmental but of the human resources of this country.

I do not for a moment claim that this is a daring or revolutionary or even important program, though I do wish to attract some attention to it. It is a unique program in the United States at this time: but there is no reason for taking pride in this uniqueness. It does not even deserve the usual encomium attributed to the one-eyed monarch in the country of the blind. It is, at best, an example of what the profound French writer Jean Dutourd recently remarked: when massive imbecility reigns, it is the easiest thing to appear wise: a minimum of common sense will do.  

1. Readers interested in more detailed illustrations of this argument may find them in my articles in Salmagundi (Summer, 1975; Fall/Winter 1975–76) and in Historical Consciousness (New York, 1968), especially pages 114–127.]

2. This is, after all, what happens when freshmen coming into our colleges are choosing their majors. During thirty years of teaching one of the mysteries that I have not been able to comprehend is the process whereby these children “select” their majors. I do not know how they go about it; I doubt that they know themselves. What I know is that when they are told that history does not “pay,” they will act accordingly. This is one of the problems that all college teachers in the humanities have now to face. The other, greater, problem is with the few who choose to be history majors, with the now immense gaps of historical knowledge with which these youngsters appear in the classroom, facing the first history course in their lives.

On the other hand, an encouraging fact, which suggests that not all of the interests and choices of young people are governed by the ebb and flow of fads: my colleagues tell me that during the last ten years the percentage of students taking history courses that they were not required to take has remained constant. In some of the institutions with which I am familiar this percentage is higher than in any other field of non-required courses.

Dr. John Lukacs is a well-known historian, philosopher of history, and author of The Last European War (Anchor Press/Doubleday).

Posted: May 6, 2012 in Best of the Bookman.

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