Self Defense for your Mind
A history prof argues that students must learn history—not to memorize facts, but to arm themselves against others' interpretations of the past.

B Y - B R Y A N T - S I M O N

I am standing inside one of UGA's massive lecture halls listening to music blasting from my boom box. Born in the U.S.A., Bruce Springsteen screams, his words filling the room. Groups of two and three students open the door, peer inside, and scan for familiar faces. I wave them in. I'm a cool rocking daddy in the U.S.A., Bruce continues. The students are slowed by first-day-of-class uncertainties. Born in the U.S.A., Bruce assures them again and again as the song ends and his gravelly voice fades.

When nearly all of 305 seats are taken, I say, "I'm Bryant Simon and this is United States History, 1865 to present." Then, back to the music. This time it's Kate Smith's version of Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," so swelling strings replace Springsteen's blaring guitar. After that song ends, I flick on the video projector, and the class stares up at a grainy, 10-foot-tall flickering image of Jimi Hendrix playing his instrumental version of the "Star-Spangled Banner" in front of the half-million citizens of the fleeting Woodstock Nation. The students wonder what they've walked into. "This is History?" I imagine them asking themselves silently.

Then I bring up the lights and tell the students that Bruce Springsteen, Kate Smith, and Jimi Hendrix are History. Not because they're old, or dead. But because they're doing what American history is really about. They're interpreting America.

History isn't simply the past. It's the present, and it stands at the very center of American civic life, says UGA history professor Bryant Simon.

Every couple of months, it seems, newspapers feature the results of the latest poll showing that a large percentage of college students don't know crucial facts about the American past. Kids these days, the polls claim, can't name the first president impeached by the House of Representatives, or the nations the United States fought alongside during World War II. Armed with such egregious evidence of the younger generation's ignorance, editorial page writers and Sunday morning TV commentators gasp and fume and predict the decline of American civilization as we know it—unless these slacker kids get on the ball and learn some history, that is.

But is it really that important that students have these "crucial facts" at their fingertips at all times? What would they know if they knew which president was brought up on impeachment charges in the 19th century, or who fought with the United States during World War II? Not much, I suggest. Coming from the mouth of a historian, that rings of blasphemy, so let me explain.

What's important about any fact is what the fact represents. Contrary to what George Will and Sam Donaldson might say, history is about the interpretation of facts, not simply facts themselves. A quick glance at any textbook will tell you Andrew Johnson was impeached by the House of Representatives in 1868. But the real historical issues are the questions raised by this fact: Why was Johnson impeached? How did his impeachment shape that most important of national dramas, Reconstruction? How did it reflect and reconfigure the balance of power in the nation?

More important, how has the interpretation of Johnson's impeachment changed over time? For years, scholars described Reconstruction as a malevolent and corrupt era when nefarious carpetbaggers and scalawags took advantage of the prostrate South and persecuted poor President Johnson. With the coming of the Civil Rights Movement, however, the story changed. Johnson, himself, was seen as corrupt—perhaps even pathological—and Reconstruction was recast as a missed opportunity in the history of American democracy. Same facts, different interpretations.

What about World War II? Again it's easy enough to find out that the U.S. joined forces with the British, French, and Soviet Union against Japan, Germany, and Italy, among others. But what does knowing the members of the wartime alliance tell us about how the alliance changed over time? Does it explain the timing of the invasion of Normandy and the long controversy over the opening of the Second Front? Does it reveal the tremendous sacrifices made by ordinary American citizens on the home front? Does it tell us about the changing role of women? And what does it say about the Cold War that the United States fought on the same side of its eventual and avowed enemy, the Soviets, during World War II? The fact of just whom the United States joined in the war cannot answer these questions, nor can it tell us much about this crucial moment in American history.

"History is so boring," students tell me all the time. Others add, "I hated all of those multiple choice tests in high school. I memorized all of that stuff, and now I can't remember any of it." Still others ask with mischievous smiles, "What could be new about history? It's all happened already, hasn't it?" This lack of interest—to put it nicely—stems from years of learning history as rote memorization of facts. So, as the last chords of Jimi Hendrix's version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" are still ringing that first day, I tell my students that facts, as the raw data of history, certainly matter. But they're simply the beginning, the first step, to understanding the past. What we'll be interested in during the semester is the putting together of facts, or interpretation. And to be able to interpret, we must learn to evaluate sources, sort data, ask questions, decode hidden messages, and write clear, coherent arguments—not just memorize facts.

Late in the semester, I ask my students to examine a set of primary documents—a series of memos and letters from President Truman to his advisors, weighing whether to drop the atomic bomb in 1945, for example—and write a short paper analyzing the evidence. What they learn through this assignment—beyond specific information about Truman and his Faustian dilemma—is that they can all look at the same documents and come up with different interpretations. In this way they realize first-hand that history is contested, unfixed, eternally unfinished.

By far, my most important message that first day—one I'll return to again and again throughout the semester—is that a knowledge of American history is absolutely necessary for survival as an American. History, I insist, isn't simply the past; it's the present, and it stands at the very center of American civic life. As a short list, I click off the following examples:

Early in the 1992 Presidential campaign, Republican nominee Bob Dole began many of his stump speeches railing against the then-recent National History Standards. He complained that they emphasized the dark side of America's past, instead of its many triumphs. A few years before Dole's campaign, Senators from several western states voiced complaints about an exhibit on the American West at the National Portrait Gallery. They attacked it for highlighting the violence of western expansion and downplaying the heroic myth. These folks' willingness to fight to see that their view of history rules is a testament to the sheer power of history.

Perhaps the foremost public historian these days is Georgia's own Newt Gingrich. In the past few years, the ex-speaker of the house has relentlessly fired away at the "War on Poverty" in the '60s, and what he sees as the continuing influence of counter-cultural McGovernites. For Gingrich, who himself earned a Ph.D. in history and once taught history at West Georgia College, the nation's problems are caused by the excesses of liberalism. The only way to put the country back on track, he argues, is to restore "traditional values," to return to a glorious past that perhaps never existed.

Still others have entered into the debate over recent American history. "We don't want another Vietnam," the politicians and news anchors tell us whenever the winds of war blow across America. They're interpreting the war as a failure, invoking the past as a warning to the present. From another point on the ever-narrowing political spectrum, Oliver Stone, in his films about the '60s and '70s, portrays the Christ-like JFK as a national savior, LBJ as a corrupt horse-trader, and Nixon as a tragically-flawed Shakespearean figure.

The struggle over the meaning of the past, I point out to students, is not just happening in Senate chambers and Hollywood editing studios; it goes on everywhere history is taught. In school districts across America, educators argue about who should be included in the story of the nation. Should that story emphasize commonalities or highlight differences? Should it be a saga of triumph or tragedy? Should it feature the nation's accomplishments or its shortcomings?

How often, I ask my class, have you driven past a car with a bumper sticker of the Georgia or Confederate flag that reads "Heritage, Not Hate"? Such car owners are playing the part of historians. While they celebrate the values of an older South, they simultaneously erase a more recent history. Have any of them, I ask, ever seen a "Heritage, Not Hate" bumper sticker with a lengthy footnote explaining that the all-white Georgia legislature voted in the mid-1950s to add the Stars and Bars to the state flag as a protest against integration? The Georgia flag, in other words, was not always the way it is today. Even the flag—even "heritage"—has a contested history.

And, lest we all forget, on virtually every television screen for the past year, scholars, legislators, and talking heads have waged a battle over the intentions of the founding fathers and the history of impeachment. In this way, the fate of William Jefferson Clinton is being shaped as much by interpretations of the past as by facts.

What lawmakers, television personalities, and car owners are doing is what historians do. But they're not doing it for fun, or for purely academic reasons; each has a political agenda. When someone calls the Civil War the "War of Northern Aggression," or demands multicultural education, or draws a comparison between the misdeeds of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, they want something, and they want it now. Like Springsteen, Smith, and Hendrix, they are interpreting the past and the present. They want to convince us—the public—that historical "facts" support their current ideas about politics and power.

Here's where the study of history becomes so crucial, I tell my students. Knowing history allows you to receive arguments with a critical eye. Knowing history arms you against others' interpretations. Without an understanding of the past—without putting together your own well-informed interpretations of history—you risk falling prey to the ideological equivalent of buying the Brooklyn Bridge or swampland in Florida. Bob Dole, Oliver Stone, and Ken Starr are interpreting the American past to shape the present. If we don't know anything about the past, how can we judge what they're saying? Knowing history is our best, and perhaps our only, defense.

As the first class draws to an end and the students gather their book-bags and wrinkled copies of The Red and Black, I hope they've heard me clearly. I hope I've shaken them up, shocked them, maybe frightened them a bit. And I hope, because of that, they'll be motivated to become active participants in history during the semester ahead—reading, writing, questioning, doubting, arguing.

At semester's end, I won't worry if they can't recite the facts—though the pollsters will still sound their perennial warnings of doom, gloom, and American ignorance. If they leave armed with both the desire and the tools to at least begin making sense of their nation's tangled past and present, I'll be satisfied.

I turn on the boom box again as 305 students leave the lecture hall. This time it's Woody Guthrie interpreting America. "This land is your land, this land is my land," he sings. Yes, it is.

Bryant Simon, author of A Fabric of Defeat: The Politics of South Carolina Millhands, 1910-1948, is a 1998-99 Lilly Teaching Fellow. You can e-mail him at

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