From Jan. 6 to Rick Santorum’s firing, America’s historical illiteracy is on display
At first glance, the Capitol insurrection that took place on Jan. 6 and Rick Santorum’s blithe pronouncement on April 23 that “there was nothing here” prior to European conquest of the Americas appear unrelated. What could the words of a former U.S. senator and card-carrying member of the pundit class have in common with the throngs of MAGA and other conspiracy-minded diehards who stormed the Capitol building four months prior?
But they are related, because they derive from the same thing — America’s ongoing crisis of historical literacy.
Santorum’s breezy ignorance is not just a personal failure; it is a social failure. Had we spent the past decades building a public sphere that met the storytelling needs of a multiracial democracy, there would have been no space for Santorum’s congratulatory tale of white destiny being made manifest. Instead, we built a nation where disinformation about the past not only persists, but thrives, consolidating many of the illusions that the American right carried into the Trump era and eventually up the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
Not investing in teaching about our history
It can be tempting to blame the immersive allure of alternate realities on the relatively novel (and recent) impact of intensely online culture. But the kind of historical illiteracy that Trumpism requires could never have come solely from 4chan, MAGA Twitter or even as mighty a delivery system for toxic foolery as Fox News. Around the time when Fox launched in the 1990s, other infotainment outlets on cable began branding content about buried treasure, secret student societies, crop circles, Area 51, the Illuminati — or any combination thereof — as “History,” giving it a patina of truthiness.
U.S. Department of Education building July 21, 2007, in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP,Getty Images)
I was an eager-beaver history graduate student back then, and while I can remember thinking the pop-conspiracy framing of this content a bit silly, I don’t recall taking it very seriously. Besides, in 2003, the reliable thinking still held that the internet was democratizing knowledge, not deforming it. It would have seemed implausible to forecast that something as factually omniscient as the internet would also destabilize confidence in truthful information.
But it’s not so implausible if we remember that “facts” per se matter much less in forming human viewpoints than the narratives we impose upon them. And to impose nonfiction narratives responsibly, you need good historical literacy skills — the capacity to weigh evidence and evaluate arguments; to consider multiple viewpoints and sift them for accuracy; to credibly interpret current events in light of past events; and to discern the chain of linkages that connect patterns over time.
Class of 2021: I’m a senior, but I don’t feel like it. COVID put making memories on hold.
Unfortunately, our country has never overburdened those types of skills with social esteem or public investment. Over the past four decades, Congress has diverted billions away from the historical humanities, and administrations have abetted the dirty deed with anemic budget requests. Last year, the National Endowment for the Humanities received an appropriation that was $258 million less in inflation-adjusted dollars than the amount it was receiving in the late 1970s. Funding for both the National Archives and its grant-making arm has all but frozen since 2014, despite a warning from a blue-ribbon consortium of archival groups that these anemic budgets were the single gravest threat to “an adequate documentary record of our democracy.” Not least, President Obama had every opportunity to save the Teaching American History (TAH) program in 2011 after its longtime protector and champion Senator Robert Byrd died. TAH was a high-impact commitment to training U.S. social studies teachers in historical literacy — many of whom never studied history before receiving their first assignment to teach it. That should alarm us all. It should also have alarmed the Obama administration, but they quietly shelved the program.
Historical literacy is important
Historical literacy is a public good worth funding, lavishly and generationally. For the cost of a rounding error in the federal budget, Congress could easily pair every school district in the United States with a team of specialists, not just one. Students and faculty alike could engage in researching community histories and curating the kind of content — from producing podcasts and conducting oral history interviews to writing Wikipedia pages — capable of meeting the expressive needs of a multiracial democracy.
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Set every under-employed humanist to work tomorrow, and in five years’ time this country might well be able to observe its sesquicentennial with the kind of historical literacy that makes such a future imaginable. Until then, ironically, our democracy will remain hostage to something else — not just a pampered former senator-pundit, or a reality-show grifter who conned his way into a presidential term, but the mythological past to which both insist we remain tethered.
Christopher Brick is a historian of human rights at The George Washington University, director and Editor of The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, and host of the Intervals podcast, a historical literacy initiative of the Organization of American Historians.
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