Sunday, April 3, 2011

Do Americans Lack a Historical Consciousness?

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Do Americans lack a historical consciousness? Well, I am starting to think so anyway - at least some of them do. Lately, I have been going full throttle with reading, writing, and discussing American history. Why not right? I went to college for a million years, why not do what I was trained to do?

At any rate, I am especially interested in engaging the public - to find out what they know...what they want to know...what they think about US history.

Twitter has been absolutely wonderful for this. Real time conversations with real people! Imagine that!! Who knew just a few short years ago that this would be how we interact?

But here's what I have discovered - people say the darndest things. Oh sure I have had some great conversations with some very knowledgeable folks. But I have also run across a sort of alarming theme. Many Americans have no sense of their own history.

Case in point: I recently stumbled upon an Obama critic who claimed that the president was the "most divisive POTUS in American history."

REALLY??? Let's see, I can think of at least one time in our history when things got just a tad stickier. You know...when Abraham Lincoln was elected, eleven states seceded from the Union, war broke out, and 620,000 people died. I would say that the political climate of the mid-nineteenth century was just a hair more fractious than things today. But I tell you what - if more people knew about the issues that unfolded during the Civil War era, they would certainly better understand the divisions of today - whether they be racial, sectional, political, whatever.

The Civil War Trust suggests that the war is the "central event in America's historical consciousness." Now, I love the CWT but I think they have missed the mark - at least for those Americans whose historical consciousness extends only as far back as their own lifetime.

Well anyway - I called the Twitter guy out and he just got all angry and defensive. Whatever - choose your battles, right?

So - that's my observation for this morning...Off I go to engage the public. The good news? I am finding more and more forums that discuss history from an informed position. Maybe all is not lost. Huzzah!



PS - if you happen to read this and think I am full of crap - let me know! I welcome all comments and criticism. I know....tell me on Twitter


  1. Twitter is not for me, most likely because I am a bit older than you are. My answer to the question is a definite YES. One thing that constantly amuses me is when people say that "modern" politics has become a dirty business. Has BECOME a dirty business!!! Compared to the 19th. century the politics of today is positively benign. There are examples far too numerous to cite here.

  2. I don't think your full of crap, but I do think these kinds of statements are nothing new. Recall during the War itself when Southerners made all sorts of outlandish claims about the Yankees, especially Beast Butler, committing the worst atrocities in human history, etc. Edward Pollard, for example, declared that Butler's General Order No. 28 "rivalled [sic] the most barbarous and fiendish rule of vengeance ever sought to be wreaked upon a conquered people.” My sense is that many people, then and now, actually do have a sense of history but make false comparisons to suit their politics.

  3. [...] ago I posted an question concerning Americans’ lack of historical consciousness. My conclusions were that most do not [...]

  4. I agree with the above commentator that it is a habit of people to make superlatives out of the events of their own lifetimes. Everybody's own generation is the Most [this] or the worst [that]. I tire of hearing people speak of this or 2008 being the dirtiest campaign in history. I always tell them -- especially the high school students when i lecture or substitute teach -- to look at the election of 1828 between JQ Adams and Jackson. Or the 1928 campaign against Al Smith (maybe it's just something about those '28 years...). I will not speak for the whole population, but I do believe students generally have a poor appreciation and consciousness of our history -- not only concerning elections and politics, but all issues.