The Uses (and Abuses) of History

May 15, 1994|By THOMAS V. DiBACCO

The latest group to attack the proposed Walt Disney theme park in Northern Virginia -- with its tribute to American history -- is Project Historic America, representing some 20 historians.

The group contends that building the park in an area already rich in historic towns and Civil War battlefields will detract from natural history, substituting instead Disney's synthetic and "appalling commercialization."

Now mind you, these are spokespeople for the profession that witnessed the near-demise of interest in history in recent decades.

Bachelor's degrees awarded in history fell from 43,386 in 1970 to 18,301 in 1981, a decline even more precipitous than the downturn in foreign languages (from 19,457 degrees to 10,319 in the same period).

To be sure, history enrollments have increased in recent years -- to 22,232 graduates by 1990 -- but they're nothing to write home about. To many students, it seems, history is replacing economics as the dismal science.

Part of the problem is the increasing concern among parents and students for practical subjects; another is the tendency to merge history into catch-all courses in social studies that serve neither the past nor the other components very well.

And then there is the tendency of some history teachers to view the field as a great, but unexciting, sea of definitions and dates that must be mastered at examination time.

But professional historians are also largely to blame. A recurring theme in the profession since I received my doctorate in 1965 is that research must break new ground. Hence, the areas of specialized training have multiplied, no matter that the popular demand for history ran in the opposite direction: for the telling of a familiar story in a different and better way.

That demand is filled by good writers (often journalists) who find that a lack of a doctorate is no hindrance to pursuing historical research. James Michener with his historic novels is a good example.

Then there has been the tendency on college campuses to consign individuals who choose not to do much research to the classroom, a second-class status for which the salary and promotion awards are fewer, thus diminishing the incentive to stimulate student interest.

The "scholars" are perceived to be the heart of the profession. Their final products are often qualified and defensive, designed to show colleagues that much homework has been done, no matter that the printed works might have all the emotion of a conditional sales contract.

These final products -- monographs in book form -- are notoriously expensive because their likely audience is so few (500 to 1,000 copies are printed). Language in monographs is often jargon, understood only by initiates to the specialized field. I am currently reviewing a monograph that deals with a single topic during two years in the twentieth century, totals 147 pages and sells for $42.95.

When it comes to textbook writing, these same scholars devise volumes that, like their monographs, turn off youngsters who have little inclination to wade through literary pomp:

"Jacksonian Democracy," reads one college text, "was the upsurge of a new generation of recently enfranchised voters against a somewhat ossified Jeffersonian Republican party. . . . With that bland inconsistency so characteristic of politicians, [Andrew] Jackson cultivated the old Federalists, whom [John Quincy] Adams had always kept at arm's length, and even won over the sons of Alexander Hamilton."

Historical literacy in earlier times in America was often advanced by hyperbole, as illustrated by the do-no-wrong characterization of George Washington. And by commercialization, especially by flag makers in the 19th century, who excessively plied their trade.

But these characteristics are less likely to emerge in a Disney theme park than is appreciation -- that is, greater recognition of the significance of historical events.

And yet, this is the most challenging aspect of portraying history: making it clear, interesting, succinct and digestible to Americans.

Surely, the historical profession hasn't done well on that score.

In that context, permitting Disney's attempt is scarcely a major risk to the nation's historical literacy.

Thomas DiBacco is a historian at The American University, Washington, D.C.

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