In 1975, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge reset Cambodia’s clock to the year zero. America today has found a less bloodthirsty way of erasing its memory by losing interest in its past. From an already low base, the number of American students majoring in history has dropped by more than a third since 2008. Barely one in two hundred American undergraduates now specialise in history. That old joke about the “United States of Amnesia” is becoming less amusing.
To be sure, Donald Trump is a fitting leader for such times. He had to be told who Andrew Jackson was (the Trump-style 19th century president whose portrait he hung in the Oval Office). He also seems to think that Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave and 19th century abolitionist, is among us still. “Frederick Douglass is an example of someone has done an amazing job and is getting recognised more and more, I notice,” Mr Trump said last year.
But America’s 45th president can hardly be blamed for history’s unpopularity. Culpability for that precedes Mr Trump and is spread evenly between liberals, conservatives, faculty and parents. One university teacher describes US history as split between two camps — the “glory” school, which provides an ennobling story of great American deeds, versus the “gory” school, which focuses on slavery, native American genocide and other atrocities.
Focus on the latter has been gaining the upper hand. Courses on intellectual, diplomatic and political history are being replaced at some of America’s best universities by culture studies that highlight grievances at the expense of breadth. The Czech author, Milan Kundera, famously said that the struggle of people against power was that of memory against forgetting. Shorn of context, however, selective memory can be just as disempowering. The data suggests that pandering to specific groups has not reversed history’s decline. It may even have sped it up.
Then there is the drumbeat of STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Most US states now mandate tests only in maths and English, at the expense of history and civic education, in which America used to lead the world. Since teachers are judged by test outcomes, they are incentivised to “teach to the test”. Barring society in general, no one is penalised for the decline in US political literacy. In a recent survey, only 26 per cent of Americans could identify all three branches of government. More than half could not name a single justice on the US Supreme Court.
But the biggest culprit is the widespread belief that “soft skills” — such as philosophy and English, which are both in similar decline to history — do not lead to well-paid jobs. But the data do not bear this out. Engineers do better than those who study humanities. But the latter are paid roughly the same as those who graduate in the booming fields of biology and business services.
Yet the folk prejudice against history is hard to shake. In an ever more algorithmic world, people believe that humanities are irrelevant. The spread of automation should put a greater premium on qualities that computers lack, such as intuitive intelligence, management skills and critical reasoning. Properly taught that is what a humanities education provides. Almost no one can fix their own computers: the field is too specialised. People ought to be able to grasp the basic features of their democracy. Faith in ahistoric theory only fuels a false sense of certainty. Few economists expected the 2008 financial crash. Historians were unsurprised.
Alas, America’s curiosity about itself is suffering a prolonged bear market. What may work for individual careers poses a collective risk to US democracy. The demise of strong civics coincides with waning voter turnout, a decline in joining associations, fewer citizen’s initiatives — and other qualities once associated with American vigour. The spread of fake news is often blamed solely on social media. Facebook bears a heavy — and largely uncorrected — responsibility for the spread of viral harm. But the ultimate driver is the citizens who believe it.
There is no scientific metric for gullibility. Nor can we quantitatively prove that civic ignorance imposes a political cost on society. These are questions of judgment. But if America’s origins tell us anything it is that a well-informed citizenry creates a stronger society. We may no longer be interested in history. History is still interested in us.
Get alerts on US politics & policy when a new story is published