Letter from the President
Collective Memory: Americans Do Embrace Their History
By Charles F. Bryan, Jr., President and Chief Executive Officer
In recent years several influential commentators have argued that we face a crisis of historical amnesia in
America. Lynne Cheney declared that "a refusal to remember the past is a primary characteristic of our
nation." Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough warned that "we, in our time, are raising a new
generation of Americans, who, to an alarming degree, are historically il literate." Louis Harlan, former
president of the American Historical Association, lamented that "the present public ignorance of our cultural
heritage . . . has alarming implications for the future of our nation." This perceived crisis has been a strong
rallying cry for reforms in the American education system and the teaching of history. It has been used as
evidence to cite what is wrong with this country.
I confess that until a few years ago, I held many of the same sentiments, and at times I still decry the
misuse and misunderstanding of history. But I have become more sanguine about the state of history in our
country. Most of the arguments about historical ignorance are that it is a growing problem and that the
American public is becoming less well-grounded in its knowledge of the past. Of course, this assumes that
previous generations were much more knowledgeable about history. That history was taught better in
schools. That textbooks were more interesting and meaningful. That historical information was easily
available to the public. That most Americans were fonts of information about the past.
Could this be the case, however, when only 50 years ago, more than 40 percent of the population did not
have high-school degrees? Can we say that Americans once had a "better" understanding of history when
many important aspects of history were all but ignored in textbooks and classrooms? Was it really taught
that much better in previous generations? I, like many of my contemporaries in the '50s and '60s, was
"taught" history by a football coach, who seemed more interested in next week's game than in the Louisiana
History occupies a paradoxical and problematic place in contemporary American culture. On the one hand,
it is widely believed that we face a crisis of historical amnesia. In other words, the glass is half-empty. But
is it possible that the glass is half-full - that the American people value and support history to a far greater
degree than is commonly thought? Indeed, there is a flip side to the so-called history crisis, and there is
strong evidence of an enormous interest in the past.
Take, for example, the proliferation of museums and historical societies, resulting in record museum
attendance and a growing historically oriented tourism market. Since the American Bicentennial in 1976,
the number of history museums in this country has more than doubled, reflecting the willingness of the
public to invest huge sums of money and effort in preserving the past. As a member of the accreditation
team of the American Association of Museums, I have observed the phenomenon of new local and regional
museums all over the country, from Virginia to Kansas to California.
According to a recent survey, nearly 40 percent of all museums in the world are now located in the United
States. Most do an excellent job, thanks to a strong emphasis on scholarship and a willingness to deal with
subjects that once were regarded as too controversial. So if we look only at the proliferation of museums,
there is reason to be less pessimistic about the state of history.
But museums aren't the only reason to consider the glass half-full rather than half-empty. History is
prevalent in the media. Although much of television still can be considered a vast wasteland, there is more
good history in that medium reaching a bigger audience than ever before. For the past several years "The
American Experience" on PBS has presented a variety of important subjects on our nation's history, done
with sensitivity and based on solid scholarship. A whole network is devoted to history, and good history can
be found on other networks, including the commercial stations.
And, even though he has been the subject of criticism, Ken Burns has presented several historical
documentaries that have stimulated remarkable public interest.
The ratings for his series on the Civil War were the highest in PBS history and rivaled those of the major
commercial networks. In the following two years, sales of Civil War books soared, as did visitation to
museums and battlefields. His other series on Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, baseball, and jazz have
had similar though less profound results.
With the advent of the worldwide web, it is estimated that there are at least 10,000 websites in the United
States alone devoted to history. Through this development, history now is accessible to people almost
anywhere in the world. We have invested heavily in our website at the Virginia Historical Society, and it is
having a profound effect on our institution. Our card catalogue is on-line now, making detailed information on
our collections available to anyone on the face of the globe with access to the web. In addition, our site
enables us to offer virtual tours of exhibits, send lesson plans to teachers, and even sell books from our
museum shop. Use of our website has soared, and the number of visits we received last year approached a
quarter of a million. Multiply those hits by the total number of history websites and you realize there are a
lot of people who are learning from a whole new source.
There are other signs that the glass is half-full for history. Thanks to the growth of the historic preservation
movement and related legislation in the past 25 years, historic structures and neighborhoods have a degree
of protection that did not exist in the past. Because of tax credits, we are seeing huge investments of
money in adaptive re-use of historic buildings and in urban renewal. Genealogy is one of the fastest growing
pastimes in America. Once the domain of people seeking admission to patriotic societies, genealogy in the
past several years has become much more democratic (small "d"), with people of all ethnic and
socio-economic backgrounds seeking information on their roots. A glance at almost any non-fiction
best-seller list will usually reveal a strong presence of history books such as David McCullough's John
Adams or any of Stephen Ambrose's works. The number of students enrolled in college history courses has
rebounded from the declines of previous decades.
I could cite other examples of why I am more upbeat about the state of history in this country, but I do have
concerns. I am bothered by the misuse of history to justify political arguments or personal ends. I am not a
regular listener to radio talk shows, but I was appalled by what I heard from announcers and listeners alike
over the controversy relating to the Confederate flag in recent years. And although there have been some
fine movies based on history, too often we see Hollywood's manipulation of the past in the name of artistic
freedom. From Oliver Stone's conspiracy-laced interpretations to the big screen spectacle "The Patriot,"
films often are filled with egregious errors and gross distortions of the past. I am concerned that scores on
the history section of standardized testing in schools are usually low, but I suspect they would have been
no higher in my high-school days.
Despite these concerns, I am not convinced our country is losing its national memory. I have visited
museums and historic sites in countries around the world. In so many places, the records and evidence of
the past were at one time or another systematically destroyed. We saw a chilling example of that in
Afghanistan even before the current international crisis. Over the past few years, members of the Taliban
began to obliterate historic Buddhist icons and empty the shelves of the national museum and archives in
Kabul. As one Taliban official declared: "There is no place for sentimental feelings with these old things."
Although our record is not spotless, history has done well in this country. We may not like certain aspects
of our past, and we may not agree on how it is interpreted, but we're not afraid of it. We turn to our past for
instruction, especially in the aftermath of September 11. Rarely have the news media called so much upon
the expertise of historians as they have in the current crisis. Indeed, this is a time when we who value and
preserve the history of our country hold a special place and purpose.
In good times and bad, history - whether in museums, on television, or in books - is a prime source for
putting the events of today in perspective. It imparts a sense of time, place, and stability. It provides an
opportunity for dialogue, debate, and the exchange of ideas. It protects the collective memory of our people
and reminds us that together we are strong. It reminds us that there is comfort in the past. As David
McCullough observes: "History is an aid to navigation in perilous times."
Despite alarms to the contrary, the American people do value their history. We are not afraid of our past as
some other societies are, and we have done a remarkably good job of preserving it and making it available to
a wide public. We learn from it. As such, history is a key component of this country's remarkable
experiment in self-government and a bedrock of our democracy.
This essay was published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, February 3, 2002
Posted February 2002
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