Those who do not know their history etc etc

Inside Higher Ed: The Tea Party Challenge – how the Tea Party movement is either deliberately misusing or seriously misunderstanding history, why that allows nonsense to spread unchecked, and why the trend of de-emphasising of history should be of concern to all sides of politics.

It is important to realize that ignorance about history allows falsehoods and distortions to be presented as facts, but it is also significant that Tea Partiers look to history to legitimize their endeavors. In other words, history is still seen as authoritative; the problem is that the authority is being abused. Such abuse can succeed only when the public’s collective historical memory has been allowed to atrophy.

In addition to a vague (at best) recollection of the pertinent facts, Tea Partier warnings of cataclysm are taken seriously because the skill of thinking historically has not been emphasized in high school and college curriculums. Teaching students to understand that things change over time because of particular actions taken or not taken and that context matters, also referred to as “critical thinking,” gives them some perspective and helps them to take the long view that can illuminate the emptiness of sky-is-falling scare tactics. The politics of our moment, focused solely on what’s happening this minute and what it means for the next election (no matter how far off), cry out for a skeptical appreciation by an electorate that unfortunately does not know how to think historically.

In recent years, conservative groups like the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni have been the loudest critics of the low status of history in colleges in the United States. They are especially upset with the lack of American history requirements at elite universities. But this should not be solely a conservative issue, nor can it be one that professional historians ignore. As the Tea Party movement is demonstrating, there are direct political consequences if the public is unable to perceive when history is used to mislead and confuse people.

Categories: education, history, Politics


13 replies

  1. Much as I applaud the plea for more history in university curricula, the premise that the Tea Partiers weren’t exposed to enough history in college is dumb.
    First off, the Tea Partiers as a group are old. In the recent NYT/CBS poll, 29% are over 64 and 46% are between 45 and 64. Only 7% are between 18 and 29. If history education failed, it failed sometime before 1980. Teaching history now would mean we would see a relief from Tea Party madness sometime in 2040.
    Second, I find it surprising that a plea for more history can’t spot the intellectual heritage of the Tea Partiers. They are the intellectual heirs of the fringes of conservative philosophy from John Birch Society all the way back to the Know-Nothings with detours into racism and antisemitism. A little bit of history would show that these strains are hardy perennials of American politics that sprout up from time to time.
    Finally, the idea that “critical thinking” is an cure for the noisy Tea Party movement is just plain stupid. The antidote is political opposition. That’s is Obama’s and the Democratic Party’s responsibility, of course, but it is also the Republican Party’s job as well.
    The Tea Partiers are a Republican constituency but not the only one. If the Republican go too far in wooing the Tea Partiers, they will break up the Reaganite coalition of paleoconservatives, free marketers and national defense conservatives and become a rump party.

    • I bow to your far superior knowledge of American history and especially American political history, Andrew. So, if it isn’t that they are misunderstanding the history, what of the alternative that they are they deliberately misrepresenting it?
      Would better history education make potential TEA sympathisers be more likely to look upon them with a jaundiced eye because more knowledge makes spotting misrepresentations more likely?

  2. I’d agree that there’s a wide-scale lack of historical perspective in a large number of movements and organisations (not just the Tea Party movement, but a lot of other social and political movements as well) throughout the wider Western culture. We’re largely raised in our little bubbles of “history began when I was born” solipsism, and this is encouraged by the media, by the social institutions we live with, and particularly by popular cultural institutions (such as the Hollywood film industry, the music industry and so on). Having the greater mass of people uninterested in anything which happened further back than last Thursday means it’s possible to re-sell the same idea sooner rather than later (I point to the greater mass of Hollywood remakes as an example of this – I noticed an ad for yet *another* Robin Hood flick on the back of a bus today, and couldn’t help thinking “didn’t we just have a bundle of those”?). It’s also something of great benefit to both the liberal and conservative sides of politics, since a population which is largely uninterested in what happened three weeks ago certainly isn’t going to give a damn about what was promised at the last election three years ago.
    This historical disinterest means we lose track not only of how badly things are going now, but also how far we’ve come. This is particularly significant if you’re part of a non-core constituency of the kyriarchy, such as non-males, non-heterosexuals, non-Christians, non-white, non-cisgender, non-middle-class, non-able-bodied persons, etc – there are some accommodations being made now, but it’s too easy to get complacent about how things are, and think “oh, they were never really *that* bad”, or “well, we’ve done all the big things, why sweat the small stuff?” Unfortunately, the problem with these attitudes is that they ignore issues of intersectionality. For example, the popular newspaper columns about how women had it so much *better* when they were just stay-at-home housewives ignores the historical truth regarding the workload of women outside the upper middle classes. Working class women were supposed to put in a full day’s work (often in a domestic capacity in the house of someone else) for a small wage, and then go home and deal with their own household. If they weren’t white working class women, the wage they received for their work was even smaller, and the hours they were expected to put in were much longer, and the work was generally much more physically demanding. As a working-class woman, I’m glad I now have a few more career choices than nursing, cleaning, working in a shop, or teaching.
    History only looks romantic and wonderful from the perspective of the upper classes, who supplied the people who were making the speeches in parliament, the people who were leading the armies, and the people who were philosophising about what the ideal world would look like. For the lower classes, who were mostly working as servants of the speechmakers, being killed as part of the army, or having to do the physical labour required to keep the world running as it was (and therefore not having the idle time to be able to think on how to improve it), history was very much a process of “more of the same”. In the past century and a half, Western society has been moving beyond an attitude of “what’s good for the king (and/or upper classes) is good for the world” which had been sustaining things since the Renaissance (and since the Renaissance we’d been moving away from the Middle Ages attitude of “it was good enough for grandad, so it’s good enough for me”). In order to continue this progression, we do need to have an awareness of what’s already been tried, what went wrong, and why it might have gone wrong; this is something that a knowledge of, and fascination with history can teach us.

  3. I think the really interesting experiment would be to sit a cross section of academic historian down in a room and get them to agree on a canonical “history” to correct the Tea Partiers. I would not expect it to be an apolitical discussion.
    I don’t think the Tea Partiers would conceed they are misrepresenting history deliberately. From what little I’ve seen, they aren’t. They are appealing to a history that may be blinkered, ignorant and distorted but “blinkered, ignorant and distorted” is someone else’s opinion.
    To draw a parallel, I don’t see the Tea Partiers using the same slight of hand that the holocaust deniers do. The knowledgeable – think folks like David Irving – holocaust deniers pick an inconvenient historical fact (Auschwitz had gas chambers) and deny it to further a political agenda (Fascism! Good for what ails you!)
    The Tea Partiers may have a skewed version of history but they don’t have a coherent political agenda, much less a concerted effort to sweep inconvenient history under a carpet to make their agenda more salable.
    Any attempt by academia (should that have a capital A?) to prescribe more history and critical thinking is just going to bounce right off them for two reasons.
    One is the Tea Partiers are old and are not likely to be involved in any educational institution (the NYT/CBS poll hints at lower than average education levels but I may be reading too much into a single question in the poll).
    The second reason is higher education is part of the conspiracy to keep the Tea Partiers down, as they see. Refuting their history will not necessarily cause them to reconsider their politics.
    Education in history and critical thinking may cut down the number of 18 – 24 year old Tea Partiers. But cutting down on 7% of the movement, if anything so inchoate as the Tea Partiers can be called a movement, will not have any short term effect and any long term effect is doubtful.

    • They are appealing to a history that may be blinkered, ignorant and distorted but “blinkered, ignorant and distorted” is someone else’s opinion.

      Oh, ain’t that the truth.
      I’d just like that opinion to get a bit more mainstream airplay. The simplistic (which doesn’t make it necessarily inaccurate) “Teabaggers are racist” response isn’t cutting through.
      Tangential, but still relevant, this link I posted on a Femmostroppo Reader recently I thought was illuminating: Ask The Panthers What Would Happen If The Teabaggers Were Black

  4. History only looks romantic and wonderful from the perspective of the upper classes

  5. I was a social studies major in a New York State Teachers College (to prepare for teaching) in the late 1950s. (I wanted to be an artist, but my widowed mom wanted me to have a career with income. I was only 16 when I began college.) No longer is it a guarantee of income, but I left teaching after 5 years in the public junior high school system to be an artist. No regrets, I add.
    While in my early 20s and teaching (age 20-25), I also went to graduate school, begun on the leftover G.I. Bill funding that my dead WWII vet dad enabled me to receive from the US government) part time, getting 33 graduate credits in American Civilization from NYU
    Graduate Arts and Science. I left before getting the degree, for art.
    In the 1950s, a lot of American history was required in the college that I went to.
    I urge everyone who has not yet read, or seen video of Howard Zinn, the recently died great historian and human being, to read and/or listen to him. There’s a lot on YouTube and he has a website His autobio is my favorite book of all books,
    “You Can’t Be Neutral on A Moving Train”. His point is that history is the moving train and you need to pick a side.
    My main point is that the American history I learned in school was flawed. Howard Zinn took 20 years to research and write his most famous book (over 1 million copies sold, and to individuals, not libraries), “A People’s History of the United States”. It corrects some of the distortions and myths. It’s a new way of writing history: from the people’s and group’s point of view/issues, not “famous men” and the governments’ points of view. We shall all miss Howard Zinn but he left a lot of writing/speeches.

  6. The best article that I’ve read discussing the Tea Party and American history is an article from a talk given by Noam Chomsky (who was a very close friend of Howard Zinn), posted on ZNet on April 20, 2010. He gave the talk a month earlier. “The Center Cannot Hold:Rekindling the Imagination”. Chomsky is not dismissive of the Tea Party people and puts them in perspective of history. (If I messed up typing, due to low tech skills, of the url, go to or google.)
    I tend to ramble (seems to be common to those of us with ME/CFS) and was tickled to hear Patti Smith, rock singer/poet say that she rambled a bit, in her interview on DemocracyNow this morning. The segment is video/transcript (both, free) at

  7. “It’s a new way of writing history: from the people’s and group’s point of view/issues, not “famous men” and the governments’ points of view. ”
    As an historian, I take issue with this claim – social history has been around at least since the 1960s, and is hardly a new concept that this bloke Howard Zinn came up with all on his lonesome.

    • Rebekkah, I think that Sanda meant that Howard Zinn had been doing social history since the 1960s, at which time it was a new way of doing history. The landmark book she mentions “A People’s History of the United States” was published in 1980.

  8. Maybe, but that’s not what she said 🙂

  9. No doubt I was not clear for Rebekka and I acknowledge that. (A very dear aunt was named Rebecca.) I don’t think of Zinn’s writing as the subject line, “social history” but I can understand its use (tigtog).
    My point about Zinn’s writing about American history from the point of view of people, using source materials (which I should have added) from
    the time of the events is best made by Isabel Allende today on DemocracyNow. She is speaking about her research on Haiti two hundred years ago for her new novel.

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