Stop letting revisionists rewrite American history

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In a powerful commencement speech to the graduates of Brandeis University, filmmaker Ken Burns highlighted the importance of studying American history: “It is my job to remind people of the power our past exerts, to help us better understand what’s going on now with compelling story, memory and anecdote.” 

The patterns of history, Burns noted, “enable us to interpret our dizzying and sometimes dismaying present.” 

But at many colleges and universities, history is a forgotten subject. Data compiled by the U.S. Department of Education shows that in 2018-2019 the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in history fell by more than a third from 2012, marking the smallest number of majors since the 1980s.  

Joe Biden likes to say that “America is an idea.” But that idea is being rapidly lost. 

In 1995, historian David McCullough was recognized by the National Book Foundation for his distinguished contribution to American letters. In his acceptance speech, McCullough warned, “We are raising a new generation of Americans who, to an alarming degree, are historically illiterate.” 

A 2023 study by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center finds little improvement: One in 6 adults could not name the three branches of the federal government, and only 1 in 20 could cite the five freedoms protected by the First Amendment. 

Too often, the teaching of American history is seen as a luxury. Today, many students entering college cast aside obtaining a liberal arts education for the allure of specializing in one subject that promises a job after graduation. For them, receiving a diploma has become the equivalent of receiving a union card for employment — if not immediately after graduation, then after years in more specialized graduate programs. 

Elementary and secondary education also finds the teaching of history suffering. In a polarized country, teachers are often subjected to the complaints of angry parents who object to what is being taught. An emphasis on math and reading test scores often reduces history (as well as the arts and music) to an indulgence that most schools can’t afford or downplay in importance. 

In his speech, McCullough noted, “There are grade school and high school teachers teaching history who have had little or no history in their own education.” This, McCullough said, was “educational malpractice.” 

Knowing history matters. I saw this first-hand as part of a delegation of Catholic University faculty to Lithuania back in 1989. 

Back then, the country was still part of the Soviet Union. Meeting with university professors and young students, I quickly discovered their thirst for understanding the story of their country. Statues of Lithuanian heroes were decked with flowers while monuments to communist idols lay bare. Notably, the art museums were packed with visitors because that is where those who suffered under Soviet domination could find the story of their country.  

When I asked one young student what he wanted to know about America, he responded, “How do we get there?” The idea of America, with its celebration of freedom and individual liberties, was a powerful allure to those imprisoned by a Soviet regime from which there seemed little possibility of escape. 

In that powerful commencement address, Ken Burns observed that his films are about us — “the intimacy of ‘us’ and also ‘we’ and ‘our’ and all of the majesty, complexity, contradiction and even controversy of the U.S.”  

The importance of “we” and “us” was emphasized when Yuval Levin, the director of Social, Cultural and Constitutional Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, became a U.S. citizen. At his naturalization ceremony, the judge said, “From today on, you have to think about America in the first-person plural. You have to say ‘we’ and ‘us’ when you talk about America, not ‘them’ and ‘they.’”  

The remembrance of the 80th anniversary of D-Day reminds us of the truth behind the notion of “we” and “us.” On that fateful day, men from every race, ethnicity and background stormed the beaches to liberate Europe. As one paratrooper from the 101st Airborne told General Eisenhower: “Don’t worry, sir. The 101st is on the job. Everything will be taken care of.” 

Today, our polarized politics entraps us not to speak as one, but to label our fellow citizens as “them,” not “us.” When our country’s motto, “E Pluribus Unum” (“out of many one”), becomes bastardized into “E Pluribus Duo” (“out of many two”) our story is lost.  

If you don’t know the story of America, then you don’t know what you are looking for. And that gives opportunists a chance not just to revise American history but scrap it altogether. Historian Daniel Bessner writes, “If there are no historians to reflect meaningfully and accurately on the past, then ignorance and hatred are sure to triumph.” 

The rewriting of the events of Jan. 6, 2021, is a perfect example. Georgia Republican Rep. Andrew Clyde describes that day as “a normal tourist visit.” And after Republicans took control of the House of Representatives Capitol tour guides were instructed to omit any references to Jan. 6 unless a questioner asked.  

A country without an idea simply occupies a land mass. America has always been an idea centered around the values of freedom, democracy and individual rights. Those principles have infused our debates and enlarged our understanding of who we are.  

Henry James once explained, “It’s a complex fate to be an American.” But when our debates become devoid of our ideals and values, the shouting matches that inevitably follow erode our collective memories of what it means to be an American. History is then written by those yelling the loudest. 

John Kenneth White is a professor emeritus at The Catholic University of America. His latest book is “Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism.” He can be reached at

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