We need historians. Especially now. Especially in traditional liberal arts colleges. Especially in Christianliberal arts colleges. We need historians because History—how to write it, teach it, and think it—is at the center of a current culture war. Often thought to be the dustiest of all academic subjects, History is now determining elections, causing people to behave badly at school board meetings, and generally roiling the waters of our American republic. Ironically, when we need good historians, liberal arts colleges including my own alma mater have decided to scale back the liberal arts and expand in more, well, practical areas, like business and computers and health care and such—all good things but not the core mission of liberal arts colleges.
I understand why schools would do this. Times have been tough. The number of college-age students is falling. Students have choices. Education, like everything else, including church, is a competitive enterprise. Give students what they want is a current mantra for colleges looking to survive. But still, just when we need historians, the places in our country where traditionally we have trained historians are cutting back on History. This does not bode well for the quality of political discourse in our nation.
Like you, I was taught a heroic version of American history. In this version of American history, we—we Americans, especially we white Americans—are always portrayed as the good guys. We have the silver bullets. When we fight wars, we fight on the side of the angels. We are, so goes this line of thought, a nation founded on the credo elegantly voiced in our own Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
In this heroic history, George Washington could not tell a lie, the US Constitution is the wisest of all political documents, and America is the great benefactor of the world. But, as even we who were brought up on the heroic version of American history know that the truth is more complicated than this. The heroic history we learned falsifies the past.
For one thing, the heroic version of American history leaves a lot out. Slaves, for example. They are mentioned, of course, but not so you would notice the yawning chasm between the “inalienable rights” for all of the Declaration of Independence [reading “men” as inclusive of both men and women] and the US Constitution with slaves counting as 2/3rds of a person.
And what of our heroes? In the heroic history of America, it is scarcely mentioned that Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence with its inalienable rights for all, was a slaveholder (along with George Washington) who fathered children with his slave, Sally Hennings. Nor did Sally’s name appear in our history books. We ignore the fact that Abraham Lincoln was slow to the position that all slaves should be emancipated, as Frederick Douglass pointed out in his speech at the dedication of the Emancipation Statue in Lincoln Park. For that matter, I don’t remember being taught much about Frederick Douglass who was perhaps the best-known American in the world in the second half of the nineteenth century. I could go on.
And it’s not just slavery that is left out. What of women? And what of those who were already living in the lands appropriated by the European powers for themselves. When I was growing up, we put on little pageants in which brave Pilgrims welcome grateful native people to their Thanksgiving feast, getting the story exactly and perversely backwards. (This is still the story told in at least some schools. I saw one of these pageants performed at a Christian school assembly as recently as 2019.) Seldom did we hear the story of the invasion of these lands from the perspective of those who already occupied them. Nor did we hear that the cultures of those already in these lands had their own accomplishments. Were we ever told that perhaps the largest city in the world at the time of the European explorers was not in Europe but in what is now Mexico, the great city of Tenochtitlan? A city so spectacular (and spectacularly clean in contrast with European cities) that when the Spanish occupiers first saw it, it took their breath away.
We were taught that the Europeans brought a superior civilization to the Americas and for that reason deserved to own it under the “doctrine of discovery.” History, they say, is written by the victors, and in this case, at least, so it is. Or has been. Lately—if lately can be a century or so—evidence has been gathered and attempts have been made to tell the story not just from the point of view of the victors but from the points of view of those they exploited and displaced. The history which emerges from these efforts isn’t the heroic history we were once taught. It’s grittier, more nuanced, more contested. It forces us to face who we are as a nation and how we got here. History has changed, and not everyone is happy.
One such attempt to set a part of our history straight—to include what has been left out—is the “The 1619 Project” originally published two years ago in the New York Times Sunday magazine. The lead essay by Nikole Hannah-Jones argues that the founding of our nation dates to the arrival of the first slave ship in 1619. It’s then that the ingredients for what we have become are set in place. Our peculiar history issues from that moment.
Not everyone agrees with Hannah-Jones, of course. After the initial publication of “The 1619 Project” two years ago, a small group of prominent historians led by Sean Wilentz published a letter critical of some aspects of the “The 1619 Project.” The Times in turn responded to the critics, defending what Hannah-Jones had written. Now, they have published an expanded version of the project as a book: The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story. This is as it should be. History should be contested. It’s the only way to the truth of who we are.
But it’s not the historical conclusions of the 1619 Project that concern me here. It’s how the reception of the 1619 Project illustrates the way History has come to dominate the headlines. Initially, according to Jake Silverstein editor of the New York Times magazine, the reception was rapturous. The magazine sold out and sold out again. People couldn’t find enough copies. But then the reaction turned. Senator Tom Cotton wrote a Times op-ed saying that the 1619 Project “threatens the integrity of the Union by denying the true principles on which it was founded.” He proposed legislation that would prohibit the use of federal funds to support teaching the 1619 Project in elementary and secondary schools. Others chimed in. Legislation has been and passed in states that restricts the teaching of History to certain approved versions of it. The culture war is on. We seem to be entering a new era of book burning, with all that forbodes.
The underlying question is how to tell the story of our country, not only because we want to get the past right but because we want to get the present right. And the future. The debate has gotten ugly. The term of art is now “critical race theory,” a term cynically used by those who want to rule out any discussion of race in our schools. Although many could not define “critical race theory,” if pressed, those who have been taught to fear it now shout at and threaten school board members, demanding that it not be taught. Instead, they propose to require by law the old version of US history that many of us learned more than half a century ago with all that it leaves out. And all that it falsifies.
Ironically, many of those who hold tightest to the old heroic story of our past claim to be “biblical.” Ironic because the Bible is not at all like that. The Bible doesn’t have many heroes and doesn’t tell heroic stories of the past. And the Bible is where we—where our culture—first learned how to write history. This is not to say that Bible does history in the way that historians now do history. The biblical writers lacked the resources, the varieties of evidence, that we now have. But the Bible teaches us how to tell a story.
When the Bible tells stories about the ancestors, for example, the story is not heroic. It’s critical, ferreting out those threads in the story that lead towards the present of the time when the accounts were written. Even when a story begins heroically, it doesn’t end that way. David’s story is a case in point. The young man full of faith who slays the giant is also the old man full of lust who has an innocent man killed so he can take his wife. What is the connection, the Bible asks us, between the bravado of the young man and the sins of the old? So, too, the Solomon who prays for wisdom is also the imperialistic sovereign who imports foreign gods and their ways along with his many wives. To add one more example, especially telling in my opinion, consider Jacob, who is not only an ancestor but who bears the name of the nation itself, Israel. In the telling the story, it’s not Jacob who acts heroically but, to our surprise, Esau—Esau, the ancestor of the hated Edomites. (If you want to grasp the opinion of the Edom held by the people of Israel around the time of the exile, read Obadiah; it’s short).
I could go on, but you already know this about the Bible. If there is anything to be learned from the way the Bible tells the story of the past, it’s that heroic stories tend to mislead us. If we believe that our history is heroic, we begin to assume that we are better than others. We come to believe that we are destined to rule. We fail to see our own faults, and failing to see them, we perpetuate those faults. As Jesus said, “Before you take out the dust speck in the eye of another, take out the 2X4 from your own eye.” Good advice, not only for ordinary life but for writing history.
And that’s why we need good historians, and why we need to let do what they do. We need historians because we will not understand where we are as a society unless we understand how we got here. History writing is a messy business. There will be disagreements about what’s true and what’s not, about how to weight the evidence, about how to construct our explanatory narratives. We can only grope towards truth, but we do so best when we do so together. We do so best when we are committed not to a false version of our past but to where the evidence will lead us.
In the end, the truth will out. No matter how vociferously some hang on to the heroic version of American history, it cannot stand up to scrutiny. Nor should it. We Christians, instructed as we are by the Bible, should know better. I hope we do. Our nation depends on it.