The Need for Positive Perspectives in the Teaching of American History
Since the 1960s, American history textbooks, many instructors, and professors have become increasingly radical and anti-American in their interpretations of U.S. history.
Sure, people and nations have failings and have caused problems in the quest for power, wealth, and security. But generally, “America the Beautiful” as the “Beacon on the Hill” was the dominant theme in immediate post-World War II interpretations.
Increasingly, America has been portrayed as the cause of domestic and global problems, more than the cure. Critics emphasize America’s faults and alleged isms and phobias, more than its contributions, virtues, individual liberty, opportunity, and social mobility. Critics of America want the immigrants to come here, but why if America is so bad?
The dominant American history textbook in the last few decades has been Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Zinn appeared sympathetic to the Communist Party in his early years. His interpretations demean the United States and make Leftist dictatorships superior. Any totalitarian excesses anywhere were caused by the U.S.A.
Historians Larry Schweikert and Michael Allen, the authors of the magnificent and positive A Patriot’s History of the United States (2007), wrote, “Zinn’s book title honestly represents its Marxist biases.”
The Patriot authors contend their books don’t portray “My Country right or wrong,” but seeks to balance the historians who believe, “My country, always wrong.” Schweikert and Allen believe “if the story of America’s past is told fairly, readers will gain a deepened patriotism and sense of awe at the obstacles overcome, the passion invested, the blood, sweat, and tears spilled, and the nation that was built.”
The authors of A Patriot’s History assert “the people know their nation is good, and know good media and academics from bad, good history from bad history,” and know their country’s virtues. The authors recommend two other inspirational sources, Paul Johnson’s Modern Times and also his History of the American People.
A recent patriotic American history text is Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story (2019), by University of Oklahoma historian, Dr. Wilfred M. McClay. In her recent review of the book in the Wall Street Journal, Naomi Schaefer Riley (American Enterprise Institute and Independent Women’s Forum) said McClay is “the antidote to and reclaims history from Howard Zinn.” This book, McClay explains, balances “the Left’s portrait of America’s past.”
Riley’s perceptive review of McClay’s Land of Hope prompted me to order the book. It is fascinating reading with its literary and historiographical richness. McClay finds most textbooks “visionless and tedious,” deplores the tendency of historians “to hold people of the past to contemporary standards,” and their reliance on “fashionable contemporary nostrums.”
As Riley quotes the author, “people (in the past) had no foresight to match our hindsight.” McClay criticizes the tendency of historians to use “partisan persuasions” to “rob recognition” from historical figures “for the truly heroic things they accomplished” in their own historical time.
People in the past were human and flawed as they are in the present, McClay says the ideological bias of historians who write books “is awful.” The author predicts a negative backlash against his book in “progressive” schools and colleges but predicts private, religious, charter and home schools will choose, use and appreciate Land of Hope.
McClay’s hope for “Hope….” As Naomi Schaefer Riley quotes him, is that his readers and students will learn to “appreciate the nobility around them,” and realize that as Americans, “we are part of the most exciting enterprise in human history.”