Have you ever heard someone say that pursuing the liberal arts is a waste of time? Sure you have. The refrain goes something like this: Studying the liberal arts is a waste of time because you’ll never get a job with a “useless” degree in English, Art, or (gasp!) History. A few years back, for example, the estimable Forbes ran an article titled “The Ten Worst College Majors,” and, of course, almost all of them were liberal arts majors. In a similar vein, Thought Catalog troll Matt Saccaro has claimed that the liberal arts, including history and literature, should be outright removed from college in order to focus on “what matters;” namely, making lots of money.
This granite-headed attitude — that the study of the HUMAN EXPERIENCE is now pointless because it won’t make you any money — is what passes for conventional “wisdom” in modern America. And even those who aren’t calling for an outright banning of the liberal arts are trying to squelch the idea that intellectual pursuits should be liberal at all. I mean, it’s almost as if some dark, malevolent force seeks to drain Americans of their access to critical thinking skills, numb them to the beauty of art and literature, nullify their ability to understand the complex web of human history, and deprive them of the intellectual tools needed to question authority and interpret human existence as more than just an endless series of vacuous, materialistic market exchanges.
Which brings me to the Republican Party.
Recently, the odious pit of snarling Uruk-hai known as the Republican National Committee (RNC) condemned what they call a “radically revisionist” view of American history that is supposedly presented in the Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. history exams. As Talking Points Memo reports, the RNC sent an open letter to the College Board to voice their complaints about the AP’s alleged assault on American freedom, and the core point in their letter is worth quoting in full:
Instead of striving to build a ‘City upon a Hill,’ as generations of students have been taught, the colonists are portrayed as bigots who developed ‘a rigid racial hierarchy’ that was in turn derived from ‘a strong belief in British racial and cultural superiority…
The new Framework continues its theme of oppression and conflict by reinterpreting Manifest Destiny from a belief that America had a mission to spread democracy and new technologies across the continent to something that ‘was built on a belief in white racial superiority and a sense of American cultural superiority.’
You see the problem there? The actual story of the American past — what professional historians would call “reality” — has run afoul of the Republican Party’s simplified vision of an American experience characterized by the steady, inevitable march of freedom that benefitted EVERYBODY, dammit. If you think that the liberal arts don’t matter — if you think that history doesn’t matter — then you’re dead wrong, and the RNC’s complaints against the AP History exam demonstrate exactly why you’re wrong. To quote the esteemed scholar Dr. Emmett L. Brown, the critical study of history helps us “to gain a clear perception of humanity — where we’ve been, where we’re going, the pitfalls and the possibilities, the perils and the promise — perhaps even an answer to that universal question, ‘Why?'” The Republican Party knows that those with the authority to interpret the “why” of U.S. history also wield enormous influence over how the general population understands what they can expect from American citizenship.
Conservatives know full-well that a population deprived of the critical thought that the liberal arts provides will be a population that accepts their lot in life without question. They know that an American populace that is unaware of the real struggles that have defined U.S. history will be a populace of acquiescent drones who tacitly accept the inherent “goodness” of America and, therefore, will never think that things can ever be better than they are at any given moment. A wholly obedient citizenry lacking in critical thought will never question the Status quo; it will never challenge the unmitigated power of hierarchical employers, clergy, and state officials, and it will never demand that America consistently live up to its founding values — because an America that was manifestly destined to spread those values could never have deviated from them in the first place, right?
The critical aspect of good history always revolves around that simple question, “Why?” At its core, the study of history is the study of why humans do the things they do. Historians analyze the past so that we can learn from the past, and while good scholars understand that all historical eras must be examined in their own context, they also understand that learning from the mistakes and misconceptions of our forebears is essential to interpreting how human ideologies, decision-making, prejudices, and triumphs have culminated to create and continually shape the contemporary world as we know it. Thus, if you believe (as you damn well should) that the ultimate value of studying history (and ALL of the liberal arts) is to learn how we can facilitate human flourishing via an understanding of how human freedoms have been curtailed in the past, then you should be aware of why the RNC wants to simplify and distort the very real struggles for freedom that have defined the American historical experience.
Indeed, despite Republican delusions, history doesn’t consist of mere fairy tales that detail the harrowing account of how George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, a time-traveling Lee Greenwood, and a Tyrannosaurus Rex-riding, open-carrying, tax-cutting, pro-free-market Jesus saved America from Mecha-Karl Marx and his hordes of communist, Injun, collectivist, pointy-headed liberal elitist Muslim hippies. Instead, the American past is, in part, the story of a nation that proclaimed exceptional and lofty values such as (almost) universal equality, religious pluralism, and the rejection of hereditary monarchies. The other part of the American story, however, involves the long — and often bloody — struggle between the various factions within the United States who sought to make the nation’s lofty founding values into tangible realities for real people — and the factions that opposed such advancements.
By glossing over these real historical struggles, the RNC reduces the study of history to an exercise in mindless patriotism that purports to mean everything while simultaneously meaning nothing at all. In her influential 1994 article “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum argued that a blindly patriotic approach to the world was not only antiquated, but also downright dangerous. Throughout most of their history, Nussbaum writes, Americans have given themselves a false sense of moral and political superiority that has equated “American identity and specifically American citizenship” with “a special salience in moral and political deliberation” and “a special power among the motivations to political action.”
But this type of blind patriotism, Nussbaum warns, prevents a critical examination of America’s many moral failings. “One of the greatest barriers to rational deliberation in politics is the unexamined feeling that one’s own current preferences and ways are neutral and natural,” she writes. “An education that takes national boundaries as morally salient too often reinforces this kind of irrationality, by lending to what is an accident of history a false air of moral weight and glory.” It’s precisely this “false air of moral weight and glory” that the Republican Party wants to propagate by replacing the critical examination of history with Manifest Destiny-style myth-making.
The RNC wants to claim that America has been uniquely exceptional in its relentless spreading of “freedom” in the modern era. This is tantamount to demanding that the U.S. be shielded from the necessary historical criticism that sheds light on the wrongs and misconceptions of the past. But historians study the past so that those same wrongs and misconceptions won’t be repeated in the present and the future. The Republican vision of American Exceptionalism, therefore, ignores America’s internal struggles with racism, genocide, sexism, inequality, political corruption, and imperialism — all struggles that place America squarely within, not outside of, the broader trajectory of world history.
By ignoring the messy reality of the past, the RNC seeks to inculcate students with the notion that “America is the greatest, so don’t suggest otherwise!” But this type of thinking only conditions people to not question ANYTHING. As the eminent historian Eric Foner writes in The Story of American Freedom, U.S. history is “a tale of debates, disagreements, and struggles rather than a set of timeless categories or an evolutionary narrative toward a preordained goal.”* Indeed, “freedom” has always been a contested concept. Foner notes that, “discussions of freedom are inescapably political,” because “under almost any definition they lead directly to questions concerning how public institutions and economic and social relations affect the nature and extent of the options available to individuals.”*
Making students think that America has been exceptional — that it can do no wrong — will effectively create a compliant populace that won’t worry about how “public institutions and economic and social relations” affect “the options available to individuals.” After all, individuals who lack a solid understanding of the real struggles and conflicts that have been waged in the name of “freedom” throughout U.S. history won’t be inclined to view themselves as agents who can take part in those ongoing struggles. That is why good history matters; it’s why the liberal arts matter, and it’s why the RNC should STFU.
* See Martha Nussbaum, “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism,” Boston Review, Oct. 1, 1994.
* See Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998), xiv, xix.