The Weaponization of History

Prof. Wilfred S. McClay records a lecture on Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story for a Hillsdale College online course.

History class is supposed to be the place where we hear the story of the past, in all of its fascinating detail, and then draw conclusions from the evidence. Much of that evidence is available to us today, and so students should be taught to read it and think about it before drawing conclusions.

That’s not how history instruction is being treated in some circles today, according to Wilfred S. McClay, Professor of History at Hillsdale College. According to McClay,

Instead of expanding our minds and hearts, history is increasingly used to narrow them. Instead of helping us to deepen ourselves and take a mature and complex view of the past, history is increasingly employed as a simple bludgeon, which picks its targets mechanically—often based on little more than a popular cliché—and strikes.

McClay goes on to give examples of this oversimplifying approach, including the argumentum ad Hitlerum–comparing everything one dislikes to the evil of Hitler himself–or the toppling of monuments when the subjects of those monuments, no matter their good deeds, were nevertheless guilty of some sin. The idea behind this kind of thing seems to be that one must be wholly good or wholly evil, worthy of the highest praise or complete condemnation.

But things are more complicated than that, aren’t they? Take Thomas Jefferson, who authored the Declaration of Independence and its central statement that “all men are created equal,” yet was himself a slaveowner. How are we to understand that contradiction? The easy answer would be to condemn Jefferson as a hypocrite, regard the Declaration as a dusty relic of its time, and move on. But that would rob us and our students of the opportunity to try to understand the contradiction by thinking about Jefferson himself, the time in which he lived, and the things he wrote over the course of his life, including of course, his own statements regarding slavery. That approach, “the genuinely historical approach,” as McClay calls it, would give us a fuller picture of the contradiction, and the tools to think through difficult questions surrounding the American founding thoroughly and honestly.

Studying history in its fullness is harder than casually drawing conclusions based on the headlines, but that a true investigation into our past is good for us as human beings. A balanced approach does justice to those who came before us, and to the students we are educating. As McClay puts it,

Done right, history rescues precious memories from the darkness into which they would otherwise disappear, forging a sense of continuity with the past. If we care about history, we now must rescue it from its crudest instrumentalizers and insist upon its richness and complexity. Our task is to recover the humane insight of Herbert Butterfield, who taught that the historian should be a “recording angel” rather than a “hanging judge”—let alone a summary executioner.

Wilfred S. McClay’s “The Weaponization of History” appeared in the Wall Street Journal on August 25, 2019. Read the whole piece here.

P.S. How was it possible for Thomas Jefferson to write that “all men are created equal” but own slaves? For the beginnings of an answer, take a look at the lessons on the American founding and slavery in The Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum.