Senior Sem Journal: In Search of a Usable Past

In today’s post, History/Social Studies Education major Mike Vangstad (’14) considers some ways that Americans embrace and distance themselves from history, in light of how John Fea discusses the notion of a “usable past” in the second chapter of Why Study History?

Throughout my life I have experienced Americans both embrace and distance themselves from history for numerous reasons. Americans have many opportunities to take a strong interest in history-related fields, even if some are more academic than others. Americans get their history through popular Hollywood movies, television shows such as Pawn Stars or American Pickers, historical novels, genealogies, toys and video games, heirlooms, tourist destinations, museums, and more. For all the grief history gets about being a dry and boring subject in schools, it seems as though Americans generally enjoy thinking about history outside of the classroom. In quoting a survey taken about American historical interests, John Fea calls such historical interests “past related activities” and makes the claim that since Americans are very strongly influenced by consumerism and individualism, they are willing to pursue history as long as it fulfills their personal pursuits of happiness. Fea goes on to give a list of reasons why the past is relevant to so many people. He describes how the past can be used for inspiration, an escape from the complexities of the modern world, to remind of us who we are today, to see progress, and to make personal connections with familiar historical figures.

Brokaw, The Greatest Generation SpeaksMany Americans embrace history in order to support their nation through patriotic zeal. The history of World War II provides a great example of this. The simple fact that is has become known as the “Good War” and those that fought in it the “Greatest Generation” provides some evidence about how WWII is portrayed by Americans. For many, WWII can be boiled down to a story similar to this: The Nazis and Japanese were terrible imperial powers doing barbaric things to innocent civilians and America graciously stepped in to put an end to tyranny across the globe. This depiction fails to address many issues about the war, but as Fea describes, the history of WWII is embraced by Americans more to show progress or inspire patriotism than as a complex study of a multifaceted event.

Americans also seem to embrace history when it can bolster an argument or fulfill an agenda. Presidential campaigns often reflect this American tendency. Opposing politicians describe all kinds of past wrongdoings by their opponents and make sure to point out their own spotless histories in an effort to connect with the American people. Politicians use history not only to inspire and invoke an image of progress, but also to try and forge a familiar past with the “common man” through descriptions of personal hardships and accomplishments that many people can identify with.

While Americans choose to embrace history on many occasions, I believe that they distance themselves from the past just as often, or at least distance themselves from the complexity of the past. This especially happens when a particular version of history fails to fit into one of Fea’s reasons for historical relevance. For example, when an event is uninspiring or shows regression instead of progress, Americans typically distance themselves from the event. WWII provides another good example. While much publicity is given to D-Day, many people tend to distance themselves from America’s involvement in massive bombing campaigns against largely civilian populations or from the fact that America’s strongest ally was Joseph Stalin.

I have also seen Americans distance themselves from history when it goes against their specific wants, ideals, or political leanings. As Fea explains, Americans consume the past when it is familiar to themselves. When history is unfamiliar or unpleasant, however, many people choose to ignore it or minimize it. The history of racial injustice in America is one such example. While most Americans embrace the Civil Rights Movement as a positive piece of American history, I think too many people use that event as a capstone on the history of racism and social injustice in the United States when in reality that history continued straight through the Civil Rights Movement. Racism is unpleasant and unfamiliar to many Americans, so they distance themselves from such a history even when it continues into the present day.

– Mike Vangstad

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