What Is History For?

In 1645, pirate Richard Ingle invaded the colony of Maryland, founded in 1634 as a refuge of religious tolerance by the Catholic Calvert family.

Ingle and his Protestant Virginian allies forced Maryland’s governor into exile, killed or displaced five-sixths of the settlers of the colony’s Western Shore, burned homes to the ground, and destroyed the colony’s Jesuit presence. “The Plundering Time” helped erase the Calverts’ attempts at religious toleration, as anti-Catholic Protestants soon dominated Maryland. By the early 1700s, Catholics were prohibited from voting, holding office, and for fourteen years even celebrating Mass.

I never learned about this incident in my twelve years in Virginia’s public schools. Neither did I hear of it in any of my history courses at the University of Virginia, nor when I taught public school U.S. history.

Certainly it seems like a story worth telling and corresponds with the pedagogical objectives of teaching about oppressed, marginalized communities. I suppose the problem is that colonial English Catholics are the wrong kinds of marginalized persons. Institutionalized religion, including the Catholic Church, is one of the traditional hegemons that contemporary, iconoclastic historical scholarship aims to dethrone and delegitimize.

While claiming the moral high ground of representing the oppressed, liberal historical education can be quite discriminatory when selecting victim narratives. It claims to free students from oversimplified, erroneous metanarratives, but exhibits simplistic, Manichean binaries with an insatiable appetite for new tyrannies to topple. This is cynical and self-defeating. “Group after group will be placed on the sacrificial altar, to bear the sins of the world, and to give the ever-dwindling groups of innocents the shortcut they need,” writes Georgetown professor Joshua Mitchell in his American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time.

Premises that go unidentified go unquestioned. Such is the case now in history curricula at the grade-school and university level. You receive little, if any, familiarity with the idea of identifying and evaluating which premises are at work in the liberal “metanarratives” you are fed.

Yet because all arts and sciences are based upon certain core presuppositions regarding knowledge, it’s all the more essential you be able to identify them.

The History You’re Getting

You probably heard: school districts across the country are substantively revising their social studies curricula, prioritizing the history of discrimination and intolerance against racial minorities, or BIPOC (black, indigenous, persons of color).

“Slavery shaped the fundamental beliefs of Americans about race and whiteness, and white supremacy was both a product and legacy of slavery,” notes Teaching Tolerance’s “Teaching Hard History,” a curriculum project of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) that many Virginia educators are embracing.

A social studies curriculum crafted by Black Lives Matter (BLM) is also increasingly popular. BLM’s objective, textbook writers explain, is to make “classrooms and schools sites of resistance to white supremacy and anti-Blackness, as well as sites for knowing the hope and beauty in Blackness.”

“This is the history that has already been there,” an instructional coach in Charlottesville City Schools told the Washington Post. “We’re just choosing at this time to foreground other perspectives, marginalized perspectives. . . . [History] has always been on the backs of oppressed people.”

I’m not surprised by these curriculum revisions. I was a public school history teacher in the Commonwealth of Virginia. I have degrees in history and social studies education from the University of Virginia. My American history courses at UVA were already teaching this content fifteen years ago—indeed, by the time I was writing my undergraduate thesis, all the available course options were studying marginalized groups.

At the time, I lacked the proper philosophical training to make sense of these broader trends in historical scholarship. I knew history was not monolithic or monovocal. You can study history from the perspective of ideas, great persons, or marginalized groups. You can study political, sociological, economic, or religious history. But what foundational principles should guide you in evaluating and prioritizing the multivalent nature of the historical discipline? What, fundamentally, is history education for?

There are many possible answers to this question. Some scholars believe history should prepare students for civic responsibility; others, that it should help to make sense of the present; still others, to develop skills in reading, writing, research, and “critical thinking.” These were certainly what I was taught when completing my masters in social studies education. They are all valid, to a point, but they are still means to some other ultimate end.

People learn how to read, write, research, and think critically for some greater purpose (and not just to acquire skills for a job!). To identify that telos, we must consider the philosophical principles that undergird history education at the grade-school and university levels.

Power Moves

The oppressor/oppressed paradigm that permeates current history curricula largely stems from a materialist understanding of history that interprets the past predominantly in terms of social and economic struggles for power between “oppressor and oppressed . . . in constant opposition to one another,” as Marx writes. This leads academics to analyze historical persons as motivated primarily by power—like when 1619 Project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones claimed that the American Revolution was primarily about safeguarding the institution of slavery. The logical, obverse side of this is to study human agency (language that pervades SPLC and BLM curricula), specifically the agency of those oppressed by power structures.

Agency means autonomy, which secular academia wants to maximize. Buffalo’s social studies curriculum, for example, is one “of emancipation, a pedagogy of liberation, for freeing the minds of young people.”

The philosophical roots of autonomy can be found in Friedrich Nietzsche’s emphasis on the will as the means to realize personal autonomy. He writes: “This world is the will to power—and nothing besides! And you yourselves are also this will to power—and nothing besides!”

In a world without objective moral laws, you must create your own reality as the means to freedom and self-actualization. Contemporary historians are deeply interested in how the oppressed perpetuated and extended their autonomy and self-identity amid tyranny.

This scholarship of agency relies on a utilitarian calculus to maximize pleasure and minimize pain that derives from Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. “The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation,” explains Bentham. “Pleasure and freedom from pain are the only things desirable as ends,” argues Mill. Oppressors do the opposite: maximize pain and minimize pleasure.

Materialist Marxism (and its sociological cousin, critical theory), Nietzschean willfulness, and utilitarianism coalesce to inform the foundation of today’s secular, ideological interpretation of history. According to this interpretation, the essential purpose of human life is to maximize autonomy, self-actualization, and individual pleasure. Yet oppressive, patriarchal power structures and their “hegemonic norms” have historically limited these objectives. These structures must then be identified and dismantled.

Of course, when you study historical actors and events primarily in regards to power and agency (who has them, who doesn’t, who limits them), you inevitably foster suspicion and skepticism. You’re not interested in a shared historical identity or fostering a robust sense of civic responsibility. Why work within an oppressive system dominated by “erroneous metanarratives”? Your education will invariably drive you to one conclusion: tear it down.

Many of the roots of the social and political distemper of 2020 can be found in contemporary American history curricula.

Consider this example from “Critical historical inquiry: The intersection of ideological clarity and pedagogical content knowledge” in the peer-reviewed Journal of Social Studies Research (January 2020) by Blevins, Magill, and Salinas. The authors observe one teacher who provokes a class discussion on why the Lewis and Clark expedition did not give more credit to Native American female scout Sacajawea.

“Because the men wanted to take all the glory,” says one student.

“Because she isn’t a guy,” asserts another.

Another class discusses the failure of Galveston, Texas, to heed warnings from Cuba before a 1900 hurricane wrecked the city. “That was just racist that we didn’t listen to them,” say the students.

“Good answers,” the teacher responds.

What’s the Alternative?

This is an impoverished and insufficient understanding of the past. It offers no coherent vision of a shared civic life, only one defined by the demonization of ideological scapegoats who must then perform penitential acts in the hopes of achieving an absolution “that is not forthcoming . . . we confess a sin of privilege which we can never escape,” as Spencer Klaven has noted. It teaches Americans to view earlier generations as motivated by self-interested bigotry, a demoralizing catechism for any young person who needs good role models.

Ironically, it creates new forms of prejudice by targeting representatives of that ever-maligned “patriarchy” while excusing the sins of everyone else. “Unlike Original Sin, there’s no salvation from white guilt,” observes Joseph Bottum. Or it selectively ignores whatever historical data doesn’t conform with its particular victim narratives, like the well-established fact that in 1860, Native Americans owned approximately 5,000 black slaves.

There is, however, an alternative, tried-and-true philosophical paradigm for understanding history.

To help orient students toward that immaterial, objective telos, the study of history must be honest, coherent, and instructional in the virtues.

In classical Greece, especially in the thought of Aristotle, freedom exists to pursue excellence and realize objective goods like eudaimonia (often translated as “human flourishing” or “blessedness”), achieved through a life of reason and virtue. Most of these goods, like friendship, spiritual happiness, and the enjoyment of truth, are nonmaterial.

“No doctrine vindicated itself in so wide a variety of contexts as did Aristotelianism: Greek, Islamic, Jewish and Christian,” observes renowned philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. Indeed, MacIntyre observes, the virtues are commended by fiction writers like Jane Austen and Henry James.

The Greek emphasis on virtue dovetails with the Jewish understanding of freedom that prioritizes religious worship and social justice. As Moses declared to the pharaoh: “The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, has sent me to say to you: Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness.” Man is free not that he might pursue his own narrow interests, but that he might discover transcendent truth and love his neighbor. Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel observes that the Jewish prophets exhibited a “breathless impatience with injustice.”

Both civilizations perceived liberty as inseparably united to teleology, or what Aristotle called final causality. Humans have certain natural and supernatural ends, and to flourish we must realize them. These are ultimately nonmaterial. Says the psalmist: “Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is nothing upon earth that I desire besides thee. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:25–26).

So what is history, properly understood? It is the study of humanity related to its telos, and the inculcation of the virtues necessary to achieve it.

There are U.S. history textbooks informed by these Greek and Jewish ideas, such as University of Oklahoma professor Wilfred M. McClay’s recent Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, which offers a powerful rejoinder to the materialist, reductionist, identity politics commonplace in academia. McClay argues that proper American historical study seeks to identify and honor those who have patriotically sought, however imperfectly, to make this nation a better place for its citizens. Indeed, virtue and patriotism are eternally worthy of emulation because they are precisely what is required to build a functioning, self-sustaining polis.

So what is history for? For eudaimonia, understood as man’s eternal flourishing both as an individual and a contributor to the common good.

You will be better equipped to build a prosperous polis if you understand yourself not in simplistic, materialist categories of victimhood, but as a noble actor in a great, unfinished story that requires the cardinal virtues of courage, justice, temperance, and prudence to secure physical, intellectual, and spiritual happiness.

Such a story is worth telling, worth hearing, and worth making.


About the Author

Casey Chalk is senior writer for Crisis magazine and a contributor at the American Conservative and New Oxford Review.

Image by the New York Public Library via Unsplash.

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