How We Have Told Our Past
Lawrence R. Samuel
University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska, 2015, 204 pages
Book Review published on: October 26, 2018
In Remembering America: How We Have Told Our Past, Lawrence R. Samuel does a splendid job of analyzing the place American history has occupied within education and popular culture over time, and how it has both reflected and shaped our cultural values and national identity. It is, to some extent, a story of the battle for ownership of the American past. And despite the fact Americans, a “famously forward-thinking people far more interested in what is coming around the corner versus what has already passed … have assigned to their own history far less credit than it deserves,” it was—and continues to be—a hard-fought battle for the soul of our society. That battle has raged almost from the outset, hard fought by “the Left” and “the Right,” with “winners” using their ideological interpretations of the facts to advance a particular narrative to serve their cause. That history also informed foreigners as to who we were, or who we believed ourselves to be from the vantage point of the dominant social elements within society at any given point.
Samuel has a knack for crafting a gripping tale. The book is a brisk and illuminating trek, “charting the evolution of [American] society” on several levels.
Numerous threads or themes run throughout the book. First, “the lines between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ were by no means clear, with each era having a different tolerance for ‘dramatization’ and its own mandate for separating mythology from reality.” Second, there is a gradual awareness that history was selective—or flat out biased—with the “truth” up for debate. For many, that truth was less important than the purpose history could and should serve. Third, to build a “usable past,” many historians and other academics believed “history should ideally serve a function rather than lie dormant and purposeless.” Fourth, the depressing historical illiteracy of American students. The deficiency (both then and now) was/is seen as a direct threat to good citizenship and social stability. If history constitutes some of the glue holding us together as a country, might not the future of the Nation hang in the balance as students get the wrong ideas (or no ideas) about the roots of our democracy and institutions? And still another thread is the persistent disconnect between students’ clear disinterest in the subject of history and the notable success of Hollywood in mining that same history on a routine basis because of the favorable reception by audiences.
For much of America’s history as a nation, the public was largely ambivalent about its collective story. But as America emerged onto the field as a genuine power player at the turn of the twentieth century, history came to be seen by many as an instrument of nationalism. History could be used to “Americanize” new arrivals, “crush divisiveness, social unrest, and ‘radicalism.’” In short, “the country’s past was appropriated as a vehicle of solidarity and unity in a time of considerable social and cultural upheaval.”
Samuel delivers a highly readable and reflective book that offers something for virtually anyone interested in the history of us—the American people. Frequent targets of derision are those who teach the subject, particularly in elementary through high schools. Another bullseye is laid upon the editors of school textbooks, who suffer from an aversion to anything controversial that may imperil sales. The critiques are well-founded and substantiated. Samuel laments, “one has to wonder if we have collectively done a disservice to the subject by presenting it in a manner that children, adolescents, and young adults find static or inert.” For sure, the corrosive sweep of partisan politics has done nothing to help rescue the sad state of affairs—hostile ideologies, fear of “wrong ideas,” and oversensitivity about historical interpretations that have all served to drain the subject of its inherent vitality. Regrettably, “American history has too often been used as an agent of power and control rather than what it is at its best: storytelling.”
He offers us several interesting insights. First, history has often been treated as taking place in the past. While this may seem rather silly on its surface, since this is true, it frequently sends the message to young people that history is dead and therefore irrelevant. As Samuel points out, while it did happen in the past, it was very much a story of the present to those living it at the time. Hence, “history” is a misnomer of sorts and he suggests “rather than looking back … we should be looking sideways, as if history was a parallel universe or different dimension alongside ours.” Second, to those who would suggest—even if only implicitly—that history is irrelevant in this fast-paced world we live in, we must convey that history informs the here and now—and we need to not only say it but also show it. In myriad ways, history is our most valuable resource for making good decisions both now and in the future. Our societal fixation on the present and future is a double-edged sword, in part responsible for our massive innovation bent, but simultaneously fueling our historical amnesia—and our ability to avoid the pitfalls of the past, presumably. Third, history may also be a turn-off for some because it is filled with many shameful episodes that collide with our guiding principles. For instance, consider the exceptions to the famous line from our Declaration of Independence, which boldly proclaims “all men are created equal.” That was hardly the case throughout most of our history, and it arguably remains untrue even today. That checkered past may be something many would choose to avoid delving into because it is uncomfortable. Fourth, directly examining that past puts into question our professed exceptionalism—and serves as a powerful punch to our collective self-image, for those brave enough to confront it honestly. Fifth, history may be more like religion and politics than we care to think these days, given how contentious and controversial the subject has been over the last century. The field, unlike say math or English, has been regularly leveraged as a tool to advance particular political agendas. “The plasticity and mercurial nature of American history has made it vulnerable to always changing political winds, weakening its foundation … [by] putting it squarely in the crossfire of dogmatic partisanship and making it somewhat of a victim of what might be described as collateral damage.” And, finally, American history is responsible for some self-inflicted wounds too. The field has been pushed to the fringe of the American educational model, not only by its shabby delivery by under-resourced and ill-prepared faculty but also thanks to society’s modern-day obsession with standardized testing that tends to view history as an obscure, rather peculiar subject with little real value for those competing in a global economy.
Thankfully, Samuel does not leave the reader hanging in negativity. He offers several suggestions that may help reverse the plight of the field. He also points to some emerging rays of hope that may yet affect a turnaround.
The book is written from a multicultural perspective, which may be a turn off to some. But the book does offer readers a very concise, abundantly readable, text that brings to life a simple reality: history is anything but static. This is a book well worth your time, if you are not a historian. Undoubtedly, for that particular clan, these points are well-established.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. John H. Modinger, PhD, U.S. Air Force, Retired