Max Boot’s Screed Against Historians

Boot

Max Boot is the Jeanne Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security at the Council on Foreign Relations and a global affairs analyst for CNN.  He is probably best known these days as an anti-Trump crusader.

Boot is also the latest public intellectual to chide academic historians for failing to speak to public audiences.  Here is a taste of his recent piece at The Washington Post:

A survey by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that “more Americans could identify Michael Jackson as the composer of ‘Beat It’ and ‘Billie Jean’ than could identify the Bill of Rights as a body of amendments to the U.S. Constitution,” “more than a third did not know the century in which the American Revolution took place,” and “half of the respondents believed the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation or the War of 1812 were before the American Revolution.” Oh, and “more than 50 percent of respondents attributed the quote, ‘From each according to his ability to each according to his needs’ to either Thomas Paine, George Washington or Barack Obama.” It used to go without saying that this was one of Bernie Sanders’s most famous lines. (Wait. I may be confused.)

Boot defines the value of history education in America by how much kids know about the past.  He is completely unaware of the fact that Americans have been failing these tests since the early 20th century.  Sam Wineburg starts his seminal book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts with a reference to a 1917 exam in which Texas students answered 33 of 100 questions about “the most obvious facts of American history.”  The educators who conducted the test concluded that such a score “is not a record in which any high school can take pride.”  In other words, there is nothing knew here.  Boot’s understanding of history education seems to be little more than test-taking and memorization.  It has nothing to do with educating students to think historically.  I wrote about all this in the context of my home state of Pennsylvania. Click here.

Boot continues:

You simply can’t understand the present if you don’t understand the past. There is no more alarming case study of the consequences of historical ignorance than President Trump. He has adopted a foreign policy mantra of “America First” seemingly without realizing (or so I hope!) that the original America First Committee of 1940-1941 was sympathetic to the Nazis. And he has embraced tariffs seemingly without being aware of the disastrous consequences of the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act.

More broadly, his appeals are steeped in misbegotten nostalgia. His slogan “Make America Great Again” implies that we must recover some lost golden age, a conceit that has been a constant of Western history since ancient Athens. Asked when America was great, Trump pointed to the early years of the 20th century and the 1940s-1950s. One wonders if he has heard of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire? Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”? The Balangiga MassacreLynchingsThe Palmer RaidsMcCarthyismTask Force SmithOrval Faubus? Of course, the United States did a lot of extraordinary things in the first half of the 20th century — but it was far from the paradise that Trump evokes. If Trump did understand that era, he wouldn’t be trying to undo its proudest achievements — from the Progressives’ regulation of business and protection of the environment to the Greatest Generation’s embrace of NATO and free trade.

Boot is right here.  It is not a new argument.  I have been deconstructing “Make America Great Again” since 2015 and I have written about it extensively in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. Others have done the same.  And many are doing it before public audiences.  In the last two weeks I lectured on this very topic to audiences at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, the University of Southern California, and a group of Christian college provosts at a conference in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Boot then goes after social history:

As historians Hal Brands and Francis Gavin argue in War on the Rocks, since the 1960s, history professors have retreated from public debate into their own esoteric pursuits. The push to emphasize “cultural, social and gender history,” and to pay “greater attention to the experiences of underrepresented and oppressed groups,” they write, has been a welcome corrective to an older historiography that focused almost entirely on powerful white men. But like many revolutions, this one has gone too far, leading to the neglect of political, diplomatic and military history — subjects that students need to study and, as enrollment figures indicate, students want to study but that universities perversely neglect. Historian Jill Lepore notes that we have ditched an outdated national narrative without creating a new one to take its place, leaving a vacuum to be filled by tribalists.

Political, military, and diplomatic history is important, especially as we try to make sense of the Trump administration.  But the study of oppressed groups are more important than ever in the age of Trump.  How can we understand what Trump said about Charlottesville or what he is trying to do on the Mexican border without an understanding of social and cultural history?  How do we deal with the racial tensions in our country or the #MeToo movement without a grasp of this history?  I should also add that political, diplomatic and military history has not disappeared.  It has just become integrated with the new social history in a way that seems to make Boot uncomfortable. For example, historians are now thinking about the politics of race, the imperialism embedded in the history of U.S. diplomacy, and the role of women in the military.

And then Boot brings it home:

Historians need to speak to a larger public that will never pick up their academic journals — and students need to grasp the importance of studying history, not only for their own future but for the country’s, too. Don’t worry, it’s not a bad investment: History majors’ median earnings are higher than other college graduates’.

This reminds me of Thomas Sugrue’s recent critique of Jill Lepore. Historians are getting much better at engaging the public, but the university system does not often reward them for doing this kind of work.  So I have mixed feelings about this whole debate.  In other words, I do not think Boot is entirely wrong about this.  I wrote about it here in the context of the Sugrue-Lepore dust-up.

Boot has responded to critiques of his piece:

2 thoughts on “Max Boot’s Screed Against Historians

  1. While historians respond furiously on Twitter by claiming they are doing a fabulous job, I am hearing privately from historians who are in agreement with me but are afraid to say so on Twitter for fear of being pilloried by their doctrinaire colleagues.

    Wrongthink vs The Party Line?

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  2. I agree with a lot of Boot says these days, but implicit in this is that there were times in the past when people were more intellectual. There’s no evidence of that.

    It’s like people who complain about the press that probably have never read a newspaper from 100 or 150 years ago, when political bias and racism were open and casual.

    I’ve also heard the same argument about theologians and archeologists. And it’s true in a way that scholars have limited impact on the public, but that’s always been true because most people don’t have the time or inclination to dive deep into issues.

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