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Modern History vs. Traditional History

It is obviously most unjust that the old believer should be forbidden to teach his old beliefs, while the new believer is free to teach his new beliefs.
—G. K. Chesterton

We have argued that the main reason for learning history is because it is so interesting, but this assertion strikes many people born in the last half century as patently false. Everyone knows that history is a colossal bore.

Critics of modern history curriculums who focus on the politicized nature of the material are on the wrong track. The unforgivable crime-against-history of modern textbooks is not bias, but mind-numbing tedium. Most modern history texts are so filled with bane generalities, colorful charts, chatty insets, and insipid summaries, that they have no room left to tell the actual stories of history. They present the bare facts, and provide elaborate interpretations, but strip out the romance and detail, and with it all interest in their subject.

How did this appalling situation come about? How did the fascinating field of history, endowed with such a rich and magnificent heritage, whose legacy is human-interest itself, become so agonizingly, disgracefully awful? And who is to blame?

The story of the transition from the engaging historical tales of old, to the atrocious tedium of modern times, is complicated and hard to summarize in a fair manner. It is hoped that the following short outline, however, will provide a general idea of what happened.


Traditional History and the Liberal Arts

To begin with, traditional history has always had both an "official" scholarly aspect, and a wide-spread popular element. The most famous stories from history were passed down, not only by scholars, but also through popular culture. Even in an age with few books, memorable, amusing stories from the past were widely known, but the line between fact and fiction was often blurred.

In colleges, where more exacting attention was paid to truth, the field of history was associated with the liberal arts. The idea of liberal arts was originally understood as a type of education emphasizing general knowledge and reasoning abilities, considered proper to a free (libera) man, rather than a manual laborer.

History was from the beginning, a pillar of the liberal arts because it provided such a feast of information about the human condition, and the nature of political and social relations. To be learned in history was much of the essence of being an educated man. Some men could reason and speak well, and some could not, but all who received a formal education knew the basic stories of history.

Juvenile history, as taught in schools from the earliest times, was a combination of both popular culture, and "official history", as certified by colleges and universities. Most teachers were familiar with both strands, and integrated them in a way most pleasing and appropriate to their students.


The Rise of Social Science

The classical ideal of a liberal arts college has always been elitist since it emphasizes skills necessary to the "thinking" man, rather than the "working man." Nevertheless, it survived as an educational ideal, reasonably intact, until the late 19th century.

By that time the undeniable benefits of both science and industry overwhelmed the traditional university curriculum in several ways. On the one hand, the enormous prestige of science led many intellectuals to try to apply "scientific" methods to human problems. Thus were born the social sciences.

On the other hand, the industrial and financial revolutions of the time greatly expanded opportunities for commercial enterprise. Universities began to see themselves as providing practical educations for the merchant classes, not just liberal arts for aristocrats.

Under the influence of both "social science" and commercial pragmatism a new idea crept into the Universities which was to have a terribly detrimental effect on history. This was the notion of "purposefulness". It was precisely this new-found pressure to focus on usefulness and tangible results which transformed the field of history within the Universities from the centerpiece of the humanities to a laboratory of the social sciences.

In the heady days of the scientific era progressive historians dared to assert that history might become a useful vehicle of scientific inquiry. If dissected, categorized and abstracted sufficiently, the stories from history might be used to serve the noble purpose of "improving society", rather than merely amusing aristocrats. This gallant experiment may or may not be said to have produced useful fruit, (depending largely on your political philosophy), but it was the ruination of traditional history.


The Fall of Traditional History

During the early years of the twentieth century grammar and secondary schools in the United States continued to be governed largely by common sense and tradition. Writers of juvenile history included many actual teachers and knowing the mindset of young people as they did, they persisted in writing books intended to interest children, not to "improve" them.

The preoccupation with the scientific applications of history did not spread far beyond the universities until after World War II, when many more people began to attend college, and almost all teachers-in-training were exposed to the latest social science theories and related hokum. Only then did these novel notions about history so prevalent in the Universities begin seeping slowly, imperceptibly into "lower" academia.

It was not until the sixties and seventies, however, when the college-educated, social-science enamored, intelligentsia began to expand far beyond its traditional bounds, that the field of juvenile history was entirely subsumed into the newly created discipline of social studies.

The idea behind social studies was to distill the most useful and important lessons from history in order to foster good citizenship in a systematic way. Educators selected history stories most conducive to promoting current social theories, and combined them with selected geographical facts, civics lessons, economic theories, a bit of psychology, and a considerable amount of moral exhortation. They then foisted this mishmash on young people in lieu of actual history.

But whereas traditional history and geography are factual and interesting, and students of even average ability can comprehend them, social studies is nebulous tedium and even the brightest students have no definite idea of what they actually learn.

Social studies does not deal in facts, but in ideas; vague, nebulous, riddled with statist cant, and constantly changing. Lest you believe we are engaging in hyperbole, we have provided an opportunity for several apologists of Social Studies to describe the discipline in their own words. This link refers to copies of four definitions of social studies taken off the web, more or less at random. The terms gobbledygook, claptrap, and balderdash come immediately to mind. What exactly are "the substantive portions of behavior, past and present"? What is "an interdisciplinary subject that draws on many disciplines"? And how exactly do students "become active and responsible citizens within their communities, locally, nationally, and globally". The problems with these definitions, and with social studies itself, is that they are all encompassing—and by comprehending everything, they communicate nothing.

The harm that the intruder, social studies, does to authentic, traditional history it two-fold. First, it replaces it in the curriculum so that many students do not learn any history in school other than selected skeletal remains that serve to buttress current social theories. Secondly, and far worse, is the fact that students generally dislike social studies. Given that it is dull, didactic, and generally incoherent, this isn't particularly surprising. However, since most students associate history with social studies, the entire field is besmirched by association. Tragically, many students finish their school years believing that history is a crashing bore without ever having been introduced to the subject.

Far from over-stating the case against social studies, we are being charitable and restrained. It is important to point out at this time that the destruction of the historical heritage of the west was not, at any time intentional. The persons most responsible for the retooling, and ultimate demise of traditional history were not bogey-men bent on destroying history, but rather idealists intent on saving western civilization. They were not attempting to make history worse, but rather, to make it "more effective".


The Tedium of Purposeful History

The use of history to teach explicitly moral lessons is the direct cause of both the dullness, and the political polarization of history. Because politicians as well as educators are overly-concerned about "what lessons history teaches", all history books which are officially used in government schools must subscribe to guidelines that are crafted by various interest groups, before the books are even written.

Modern school textbooks are designed by committee and are not allowed to contain anything offensive to anyone. How can modern books possibly avoid being vapid when they are bound by a thousand constraints imposed by an army of well-meaning meddlers. They must be comprehensible to every dullard, and unoffending to every thin-skinned partisan. How can human interest possibly flourish in such shackles?

In contrast, traditional history books were written by actual authors, who were generally trying to entertain and inform, rather than to steer clear of political pitfalls, or avoid upsetting the hyper-sensitive.

Traditional history authors were allowed to tell stories that had difficult and conflicting morals, and sometimes no particular moral at all. They didn't need to make sure even the dullest of their readers "got the point", by spelling it out for them. They didn't need to dumb-down their texts so that over-stimulated children with the attention span of a gnat did would not "be bored". In short, they were free to write interesting stories.

Not all traditional authors of history were saints, and their works are not perfect. Some were balanced in their treatment of history, and others were fierce partisans. For example, most authors who wrote in English a hundred years ago were at least subtly anti-Catholic, and some were rabidly so. Likewise, almost all English-language histories of Spain are flattering toward British interests, and critical of Spaniards.

There are many other similar criticisms that can fairly be made but none that justify the wholesale jettisoning of traditional history. No one is claiming that traditional authors were utterly impartial; only that they wrote good stories and generally refrained from boring, befuddling, and browbeating their audience.



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