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Eric Foner on Understanding Our History
Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History at Columbia University, is the author of numerous works on American history, including Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War; Tom Paine and Revolutionary America; and The Story of American Freedom, and Our Lincoln. He has served as president of both the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association, and has been named Scholar of the Year by the New York Council for the Humanities.
Question: What’s the proper role of history in society?
Foner: We historians always feel the people don’t know enough history. That’s part of our occupational definition, that we need to teach more history. We’re in a funny position now socially in terms of our concept or understanding of history. On the one hand, history is fairly popular, in a way. There are history books on the bestseller list, people like Doris Goodwin, David McCullough, James McPherson, they write books which are widely read outside the academic world, and that’s of course all to the good. People watch the History Channel on TV. They go to historical battlefield sites and museums. On the other hand, those, the popular interest in history seems to be in a very narrow part of American history. The Civil War, the American Revolution, great figures of history, and there seems to be a disconnect, in a sense, between the way history’s being written in the academic world, which tends to focus nowadays on ordinary Americans, on groups which have tended to be neglected in the past, African-Americans, women, Hispanics. You don’t see books about Hispanic migrant workers on the bestseller list, although historians are studying them. You don’t see books about women’s struggle for the vote on the bestseller list. You see books about great political white leaders, you see books about Civil War battles, you know. So, there’s nothing wrong with that, but I think it creates a rater limited view of the broad sweep of American history and a very diverse cast of characters in American History. Knowing history doesn’t tell you what you should do in the present. You can study the history of immigration, as we should, and immigration policy. That doesn’t tell you what our policy about immigration ought to be in the year 2008 or 2009, but if you don’t know that history, you are in a great disadvantage in thinking about the present. You don’t know what has been tried in the past, what has worked, what hasn’t worked. You’re like a person with amnesia. You can go along your life with amnesia, but what kind of life is that? You have no idea where you’ve been, where you’re coming from. So, as a society, we have a certain amnesia about many parts of our history, and I don't think that’s necessarily good.
Question: What educational steps can be taken to give history a makeover?
Foner: One of the numerous unfortunate results of the “No Child Left Behind” Law is that it has forced schools to put all their emphasis on reading and [math] and writing and math tests, because that’s how they judge. Now, I certainly believe young people ought to be able to read and write and know math, but I speak to teachers from around the country, I lecture to them, and history teachers are always saying history is becoming more and more of a luxury in schools because schools are tested and judged and funded on the basis of these tests that have nothing to do with history. So, if you teach history, you’re kind of taking time away from these other subjects which are, which is where your standing is going to come from. So, in a way, it’s the more elite schools that are spending the time teaching history, the private schools, the really upscale public schools, whereas the schools where many lower class students are, schools in trouble find that history is something they can’t even afford to spend time on. So, that, I think is very unfortunate. There’s less history being taught in schools now than there used to be, and that is really something I think that needs to be reversed.
Question: What are the greatest misconceptions Americans have about their history?
Foner: Today especially, in the year 2008, in the world we live in today, the biggest misconception, in a sense, is the idea of American exceptionalism. What makes America exceptional, somebody once said, is the vehemence with which we insist on our exceptionalism. This is part of our rhetoric. It has been since the American Revolution. America is the City on the Hill, as the Puritans said, or the Empire of Liberty, as Jefferson said, and therefore, we have a special role, whether God gave it to us or someone else, a special role in the world to spread democracy, to spread freedom. Now, I’m not saying America is just like every other place. Many countries are exceptional. By the way, the French think they’re exceptional too, as do the British, and they are. You know, the history, no place is identical to that of the others, but, somehow, our sense of our own exceptionalism, it’s fine to have pride in your country, obviously, but it has very detrimental effects for two reasons. One, it leads so many people to assume that every time we exert our power overseas, it’s in the name if freedom. We are that… you know, Jefferson’s notion, the Empire of Liberty. You might say, “How is that? How can an empire be an Empire of Liberty? Empire mean domination. It means power. It means ruling over other people. How can it be an Empire of Liberty?” Well, Jefferson, well, that’s the old kind of empire. That’s the British, the French, etc. Our empire is different. We are bringing freedom to people all around the world. Well, the problem is other people also have ideas about freedom. They may have given some thought to the idea. They may not want one country to simply march in and say, here it is, guys: freedom. Take it, you know. We’re giving it to you. And, by the way, if you don’t like it, we’re going to occupy your country, you know, and tell you what to do. We might, if we weren’t so obsessed with our exceptionalism, we might be a little more modest in terms of our view of the world. And, secondly, this view of American exceptionalism leads directly to the idea that we have nothing to learn from the rest of the world because we’re so different, because our history is so different from that of everybody else, nothing in their experience has any bearing on us. So, for example, throughout this presidential campaign and for the last few years there’s been a lot of debate about health coverage in the United States. Everyone knows our health system is a disaster and it needs to be fixed in some way. We have tens of millions of people with no health coverage at all. Even the people with coverage, they are insurance companies that are always trying to not pay them and all that kind of… Everyone knows the problems with our health system. You know, every other country in the world has a health system. Canada has one. England has one. France, Japan, Germany – they all have different systems. Have you ever heard anyone say, why don’t we look at what they’re doing? Maybe we might learn… We don’t have to adopt their system exactly, but maybe we can learn something from how these other countries deal with it. Nobody says that because we’re so exceptional, we can’t learn from anybody else. So, we got to figure it all out for ourselves. So, if we could move toward the idea that America, that American history is imbedded in the history of the world... It’s not that it’s homogenous, but that we have always been influenced by the rest of the world, and we have always influenced the rest of the world, and to understand our history, you have to view it in a broad, global context. That actually might give us a frame of mind that would be more relevant to the modern, globalized world that we are living in right now.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
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Bacteria under microscope
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This plague patient is displaying a swollen, ruptured inguinal lymph node, or buboe.
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