In October 2010, Mr. William Osborn, the former CEO of Northern Trust Bank, held a luncheon for a group of distinguished jurists in Chicago to introduce them to the Jack Miller Center. The featured speaker was Gordon Wood, the preeminent historian of the American Founding and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. An attendee asked Professor Wood why education in America’s Founding Principles and history is no longer commonly included in the curricula at most colleges and universities.
This question inspired the following conversation about why colleges are failing to teach, and students are failing to learn, about America’s past. The JMC’s Dr. Pamela Edwards met with Professor Wood and Jack Greene in early February 2011 to discuss the state of historical study in today’s university. Professor Greene is one of the seminal figures in the field of Atlantic history and is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor Emeritus at Johns Hopkins University.
An excerpted version of this conversation can be read below, and is also featured in the JMC’s 2010 Annual Report. To request a copy of the report, please email Emily Koons (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Pamela Edwards: You’ve both had very distinguished careers teaching American history. What is your feeling about the current state of the field and what would you like to see for it?
Gordon Wood: I think in terms of constitutional history, it’s generally not being taught at the undergraduate level. Of course the law schools are still teaching American constitutional history, but by and large, legal and constitutional history along with diplomatic history has been shunted aside (at the undergraduate level) over the last generation by cultural history.
PE: Why has this happened?
GW: Race and gender issues have become very, very important because of contemporary issues, and they have dominated many history departments, certainly my own. It’s been at the cost of some of these older, traditional fields. It takes sometimes 20 or 30 years, but you do have new people coming up and they have new interests, and there will be new contemporary issues that focus on the past that we want to understand. It’s not surprising that the best studies of slavery came out of the 1960s civil rights movement. People wanted to know where did this race problem come from and so it’s natural to do that. And the women’s movement of the 1970s generated a tremendous number of works on women in the past.
Jack Greene: Even when they do teach American history, it’s highly distorted I think. When they teach American Constitutional history for instance, it’s a history of the Supreme Court. Let’s face it, the Supreme Court wasn’t very important until the 20th Century. What they don’t do is give you a history of the Virginia Supreme Court in the early half of the 19th Century, which has a very rich history. I actually think this is part of a broader problem, which is using the national state as a framework for historical studies. If you really wanted to do an accurate history of the American nation, it would be a history that gave more attention to what was going on in the states. It’s a complicated thing. It’s very difficult to do that. American history textbooks, if you look at one, have a little bit on the colonial period and on the revolution and then they move from one election to the next election. So mostly, it’s elections, which didn’t have much meaning or bearing on the lives of these people who were living in the United States.
GW: You’re quite right. Even in teaching constitutional history, they focus on the Supreme Court. There are only two books that are on the federal district courts that have been written, and the district courts in most states were one per state, and I think there’s one in Kentucky. But all those other district courts, nobody has worked on those and we know so little. So much was taking place at the federal district if you’re talking about the federal law. The states are the really important arena for most events but even at the federal level, we know very little.
JG: I think one of the most important things that should be done in any history course is to give students a strong sense of anachronism. The United States was, in 1776, a kind of unintended consequence of this revolt against Britain. People had come together in 1774 and ‘75 and they had this strong sense that they had these unities that bound them together and so forth. But the idea of creating a significantly empowered national government is an idea that grows out of the experience of the 1780’s, as Gordon has explained so successfully in a number of books. I want to get back to your original question and make a point about how people moved away from constitutional history into social history and cultural history. In doing that, I think that it’s true that at the moment, people seem to be ignoring something that Gordon and I both are still interested in, but at the same time, it has drawn people into an interest and a stake in history that has a potential to rework and revive things like American constitutional history. It’s just that, as African Americans for instance, come to realize they have a history, which for a long time was very marginal and not central.
GW: Almost denied.
JG: Almost denied and not central. Women were certainly even more deeply denied. It’s very hard to ignore slavery. But it was easy to ignore women. When you thought of history in terms of some sort of paradigm or power, men had the power. So if history is about power, I think there is potential there for reviving, and in a very different way and with a much richer fallout, the history of the Constitution, interest in the American Constitution.
PE: And so is that really the new project perhaps, to create a very rich, complex context but at the same time to be able to have an integrated narrative again? Could you tell not one narrative but a number of extremely important exciting ones that are interdependent without flattening context and details entirely? Is that the way one would want to move do you think?
GW: You have to have multiple narratives because there’s just too much information, too many stories out there and it becomes very difficult. There is a stake in history. It’s not life and death, but it is important how one views the past of your country, and if it’s a depressing story of murderous killing of native peoples and enslaving of Africans and that’s it, then it’s a little depressing for youngsters to get that. So you need to offset that kind of negative story with some kind of sense of what the country has been besides that. But these are contested all the time and that contest will go on because the stakes are high because people have agendas that they are promoting in the present. It’s the present that drives the interpretations of the past. We’re not antiquarians. We don’t wallow back in the past for its own sake. My own view is that questions of the present lead you to want to find answers but the present shouldn’t dictate the answers you come up with. And that’s generally happened. The first forays into the slavery in the 1960s may have been crude but people get away from the present and they just get fascinated with the authenticity of the past and they forget why they even went to investigate the subject. That’s the best kind of history.
PE: I’d like to ask each of you what you imagine or would hope for the field in American history in the next decade.
GW: I don’t know what’s going to happen but I would hope there would be some return at least to a sophisticated political, diplomatic; I mean certainly there is a greater awareness of the world, and Jack has been a pioneer in Atlantic history, way back before it was called Atlantic history. He was, at Hopkins, creating the Atlantic world as a source of study. So that has enriched things, but I think looking at the world because we, the United States, are a world power now, a super power and so it’s natural that we want to think about things in this worldwide aspect, and that just complicates the past even more.
PE: Jack any final thoughts?
JG: I’ve always thought that the function of historical studies generally was to create critical citizens and to give them a sense of skepticism about received wisdom. I think that if we can continue doing that, it doesn’t really very much matter what subjects we’re taking up. It’s just a matter of making people aware of the past and of difference.
GW: And how complicated the past is.