Eric Foner on Understanding Our History

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.

The author says it is in our best interest to be well-acquainted with our history and outlines a few ways to achieve this in our schools.

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.