If “reading maketh a full man,” as Sir Francis Bacon avers, Then the New York Times best-seller list is a window into the American soul. To judge from the view, we are an angry, divided, and shallow nation.
A deeper look, however, can give us some hope even in that bleak landscape of elite Americana. One finds several encouraging entries on this week’s predictable slew of political screeds and celebrity tell-alls. David McCullough’s “The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West” is an academic history about the settlement of Ohio written in characteristically beautiful prose. A little further down, “The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777,” by Rick Atkinson, is the first volume of his Revolutionary War trilogy.
George Will’s “The Conservative Sensibility” is new to the list this week. Quite unlike the political commentaries that routinely rank, Will’s 600-page book is an academically researched “exercise in intellectual archeology” designed to “reveal the Republic’s foundations.”
He believes the country’s foundational principles remain vitally important to healthy republican government today, and brings to bear an encyclopedic command of American history and the history and consequences of subsequent American political thought. One recommendation: Americans should know their history. As Will notes in his chapter on the aims of education, “the memory of a nation needs attending to; it does not nurture and transmit itself. It must be transmitted; it must be taught.”
Ironically, Will’s ascent displaced a book that did just that—Sen. Tom Cotton’s “Sacred Duty.” Equal parts memoir and history, Cotton’s book tells the story of “The Old Guard” infantry unit, to which he was assigned as a platoon leader between tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its mission, to honor the country’s fallen soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery, captured the attention of enough Americans to rank for three weeks (although apparently not the New York Times’, which has so far neglected to review it).
Encouragingly, this isn’t abnormal; challenging works in American history have often topped the non-fiction list. John Meacham’s “The Soul of America,” and Ron Chernow’s “Grant,” were both among the small number of serious books to claim the top spot in 2018, a year dominated by breezy commentaries criticizing or celebrating President Trump.
The point: Americans have a hunger to understand, explore, and connect with their history. Richly sourced, intellectually demanding accounts of the country’s defining moments and characters do more than break through the noise.
Indeed, historians are probably the scholars most celebrated outside the confines of the academy. They are among the few who shape our cultural landscape—from a place of learning. As though to prove the point, Chernow’s 832-page 2005 biography of Alexander Hamilton, also a New York Times best-seller, inspired the most talked-about Broadway musical in a generation. Only on the American college campus is American history on retreat.
Universities Are Turning Their Backs on History
How strange it is that U.S. colleges and universities are abandoning the study of American history and, at some institutions, the study of history altogether. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni evaluates the general education programs of more than 1,100 colleges and universities every year. The 2018–19 report found that only 17 percent of them required any kind of foundational course in American history or government. As of 2016, only four out of the top 25 national universities (as ranked by U.S. News and World Report) required a course in U.S. history in their history majors.
In this light, it is perhaps unsurprising that history programs in the United States are struggling to generate student interest. When the American Historical Association drew attention to cratering undergraduate degree production last year—the number of history degrees awarded annually has fallen almost 34 percent since 2011, more steeply than any other discipline in the liberal arts—commentators were quick to blame the mania for STEM education and the perception that the humanities fail to prepare students for the job market.
Bernie Patterson, chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, explained his university’s rationale for eliminating its history major along similar lines, as part of the institution’s effort to build a “new kind of university” focused on delivering “programs aligned with the career-focused goals of our students and the needs of regional communities and businesses.”
Stevens Point abandoned the proposal after a student and faculty insurrection. Unfortunately, universities elsewhere—including Wheeling Jesuit University and the University of Tulsa, both institutions long known for strong liberal arts curricula—are moving forward with plans to axe programs and faculty in traditional arts and sciences disciplines.
Good-faith concerns about graduates’ workplace readiness in the age of skyrocketing tuition costs may explain a part of the precipitous decline. But so does the abandonment by history faculties of the kind of history Americans hunger for—the kind that catapults a book onto The New York Times best-seller list. As professors move away from offering “big picture” survey courses—Colonial America, American History to 1865, Twentieth Century America, etc.—in favor of “micro-histories” tailored to their specialized research interests (or worse, invocations to political activism welded to histories designed to desecrate the country’s past), their numbers will continue to dwindle.
Citizens Without a Knowledge of History
The effects will reverberate well beyond academic history departments. An elemental purpose of public postsecondary education in the United States has always been to cultivate responsible citizens and public-spirited civil servants. To that end, Thomas Jefferson explained to the state legislature in 1818 that he intended for the University of Virginia to “instruct the mass of our citizens in their rights, interests, and duties, as men and citizens” as well as in “the higher branches of education, of which the Legislature require the development [and] which are to form the statesmen, legislators, and judges, on whom public prosperity and individual happiness are so much to depend.”
Jefferson understood that developing a national consciousness and a shared sense of purpose requires, first and foremost, that citizens understand the principles that enliven their political system. Celebrating our history is just as important. The sense that we share common ancestors, that we can be proud of the events in our past that forged the world we live in today (and that give us cause to work to build a more perfect union for our posterity), generate bonds of affection that tie citizens together—and to a country that will outlive any one of us as individuals.
Just as important, politicians animated by the noble patriotism aroused by serious study of American history, who grow to love the common good, are unlikely to whip the electorate into a frenzy to advance their careers. In contrast, popular appetite for books (and the social media echo chambers) that divide us—and fuel the fires of the new tribalism built on ideological foundations—will continue to grow until Americans recover their collective national memory.
To their shame, American universities have abandoned the task of cultivating a sense of common purpose, with ruinous consequences. Today, most Americans would quite literally fail the citizenship test. A 2019 study conducted by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation found that “only one state can pass the U.S. Citizenship exam” and that, nationally, only four in 10 demonstrate a basic understanding of American history.
Kentucky, where I spent the last 10 years teaching political science, ranks second to last. That didn’t stop a 2017–18 faculty taskforce charged with recommending revisions to our general education program from proposing that we drop the learning outcome that required all students to take a course designed to teach “responsible citizenship.”
News that the country is facing a crisis in civic education is not new. To their credit, a few states are experimenting with initiatives designed to strengthen civic education, including mandates that students take a course in American history or politics, or otherwise prove proficiency in civics.
That’s a good start. But the real work will have to be done on college campuses. What this week’s New York Times best-seller list reminds us is that the problem is not a lack of interest among the broader citizenry, but the astonishing abdication by university faculties of one of their most important civic duties.