Do Americans lack a historical consciousness?

Screen shot 2014-02-24 at 10.21.46 AMWell, 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??? Say what you will about El Presidente but 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 roughly 820,000 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 would be willing to wager that most of my readers are on the stick when it comes to historical consciousness. 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

11 thoughts on “Do Americans lack a historical consciousness?”

  1. Not only do most Americans lack a historical consciousness, they don’t even know what it is. And this is encouraged by our politicians who don’t want the people to know the actual history but rather what the politicians want to spoon feed to them. I remember when Bill Clinton was president and making claims that his administration was the first in history to be so vilified by his opponents, and the media, whose appreciation of history goes as far back as last week, ate it up.

    1. I had forgotten about that but yes…I can think of a few more that were more vilified than Bill. You are certainly right, Al – the media (especially the dimwitted anchors on 24 hour news channels) love this sort of thing. Maybe they need to fill air time, maybe they are morons – hard to say.

  2. Let me expand (initial response was before my daily bourbon ration). One of the reasons I follow Keith, and Kevin Levin, and Brooks Simpson, among others, is that I get a connection with actual living, breathing historians. I spend my working days among folks who generally have little awareness of history. And it’s not that they’re not able to understand, but they’re off-work leisure hours seem to be devoted to reality TV and silly Facebook games. But Keith, keep on keepin on (as they say). I occasionally get a glimmer of understanding when I talk about Gettysburg or Lewis & Clark. Can be a lonely road, but for those us who weren’t aware enough to take the history career path when we had the chance, I for one, truly appreciate how you share with those of us on the “outside”

    1. Bourbon makes everything more clear…
      And Mike, I thank you very much for reading and participating on this blog. It’s folks like you who make the effort worth it all.

  3. Very good post. I agree completely. Unfortunately, I feel my generation is leading this sad reversal of a “historical consciousness.” Although I am just 25, I did two years of graduate teaching while working on my Master’s in American history. I taught intro survey courses to students who needed it to graduate. Of course I had the few students who were receptive and even a select few who had the potential to be a history major! But the vast majority were nice kids but ones who could care less what the Emancipation Proclamation truly meant or whether Lincoln’s duty was to free the slaves or preserve the Union. However, as much as there are key indicators that our society is losing its connection and understanding to the past (which really scares me), there are people, like yourself and others, that can help stem this tide. I applaud anyone who does a PhD in history. I am taking some time off to discern if this is something I want to do. I truly love teaching and the interaction with students but I am not excited about enmeshing myself in the politics of the professional history profession (I have some serious qualms about it, but still believe it does more good than bad. My major qualms are with the tenure process, rank and file, etc.). While I work on deciding what is next, I’ve gotten involved locally in public history projects in the community and the reception I’ve received from locals, both strangers and friends, is wow that sounds cool, I want to know more! I live in Atlanta and deplore the city’s history of razing anything of historical value. The phoenix rising from the ashes motto does not give any person a unilateral right to destroy history. But that is another subject. What gives me hope is that a person stopping to read a marker at Tanyard Creek, site of the 1864 Battle of Peachtree Creek, had stopped by while walking his dog to read the dated by still relevant 1960’s centennial marker. He has an interest and a desire to know why there is a marker there. It means something. And as long as some people have an interest, there is hope. And as long as there is hope, I’m going to keep working hard on the public history front! Sorry, I got on my soapbox a little but I really enjoyed your blog post. Keep up the good work!

    1. Thanks for the comment Ian – trust me, I share your qualms. We should talk more about this, I believe there are alternatives.

  4. As an entire population, America has the historical consciousness of a fourth grader.

    Americans have historical emotions, though. The American Revolution, which consists entirely of the Boston Tea Party and the Boston Massacre, was awesome. The Civil War, which was started by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, was tragic. But Americans feel very proud about both, although, when pressed, they aren’t sure why, except, you know, “freedom.”

  5. Americans have a strong historical consciousness. In what other country do people hark back to a generation that lived 230 years ago to justify and explain every political action? Naming a movement the Tea Party is itself an expression of the presentness of history.

    We have a strongly historical consciousness, we just don’t have the facts straight.

    1. Well…the Tea Party aside (perverse as they are), I would still argue that a significant number of US citizens could not discuss anything historical beyond their own lives.

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