Whatever Happened to History?

According to a recent poll, 72 per cent of Americans think that we are now in the “worst” period of American history.  Polls are dubious things and the great historian John Lukacs has questioned whether there really is any such thing as “public opinion.” But this poll simply supports what we already knew about pervasive historical ignorance, which is exhibited every hour of every day by the politicians and the minions of the “news” media. 

Americans are a momentary and self-referential people. They can’t remember what happened last week unless it was on a soap opera.  Few have any notion of ancestors, and, except for those of us who cherish our grandchildren, posterity is never thought of. If it is not now it does not exist. This is an unprecedented situation. In every past civilised society even common people had some idea of what their ancestors did in the great events of the past. The past was felt—it was not a theory or a slogan. And they planted trees and built houses that would only be enjoyed by their descendants.

It does not help, of course, that a great chunk of the American population are foreigners who have no connection to the American past. And no interest except in using distorted versions as weapons of extortion. Every people cherishes its own history, which is often somewhat mythical. Are we seeing a new American history for a new American people? Even people with actual American heritage have forgotten who they are and adopted the new history.

So, most Americans are not aware of the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War II, the tense times of nuclear standoff in the Cold War?  They think today is “the worst of times.” We, of course, already know of this widespread plain ignorance of the simple facts. The “historians” are largely responsible for this, especially the current and rising professors who have been teaching distorted present-centered history for decades now. Teachings which have  become the false and ridiculous claims of aggressive minorities and revolutionaries.

But the poll tells us more than widespread ignorance of simple facts of history.  The majority, if it is such, who think this is the worst of times are not simply ignorant—they have a catastrophic unconsciousness of what has gone before and the fundamentals of how societies of human beings work.  They have lost all knowledge of human experience. Thus, imperious childish demands for things that are imaginary or will not work.  I would go so far as to say that we are in a post-civilisational era. A large part of the population has dropped out of Western Civilisation, the highest and brightest human achievement.

History, properly understood as the study of the past for knowledge and understanding of ourselves as human beings, has been the unique hallmark of Western Civilisation. The concept of a meaningful course of human experience does not otherwise exist. We learn some things by scientific examination of ourselves and the world. We have the guidance of Scripture, which is sometimes hard to discern. But all else we really know is the past.  The future is a fantasy that nobody can know. We are in the process of losing history and therefore any meaning for our life that is more than a rapidly passing moment.

About Clyde Wilson

Clyde Wilson is a distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina where he was the editor of the multivolume The Papers of John C. Calhoun. He is the M.E. Bradford Distinguished Chair at the Abbeville Institute. He is the author or editor of over thirty books and published over 600 articles, essays and reviews and is co-publisher of www.shotwellpublishing.com, a source  for unreconstructed Southern books. More from Clyde Wilson

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