Lately, I’ve been thinking about the tensions inherent in an American history survey course–probably in any survey course, for that matter. Before last year, I redesigned my course along thematic (as opposed to chronological) lines, and all in all, I believe it works well. There are some things that I’m not entirely satisfied with, as there probably always will be. I’m a tinkerer, so I’m never fully satisfied.
For many of my students, my course may well be the last history course they ever take, which feels like both an opportunity and a burden. It also leads to a set of goals for the course which are sometimes at odds with one another.
I want my students to assimilate some historical knowledge, but I also want them to see history as more than just a parade of facts. I want them to understand that history is distinct from the past and is always a work in progress. In short, I want them to develop a certain level of competence in thinking like a historian, and yet I know that very few–if any–will actually become historians. Still, I hope to persuade a few of them (OK–I would settle for just one of them) to take another history course down the road, or at the very least, to someday pick up a work of serious history and think, “Hmm. This could be interesting.”
Sometimes, the goals are even more at odds with one another. I want my students to appreciate the nuance of history–the context, the complexities, the contingencies–and to benefit from the specialized contributions of many diverse scholars. Yet I also want them to grasp a broad, digestible narrative. How do we do both?
I’m not sure there are perfect solutions to these challenges, but for my part, I try to frame the course around historical thinking as a form of citizenship training. I am not always explicit about this with the students, but I try to emphasize source analysis, corroboration of information, questioning of narratives, etc. I try to give students a variety of sources that reveal complexity in the past, whether that means challenging a “metanarrative” or presenting a variety of perspectives on a particular topic.
In his essay “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life,” Friedrich Nietzsche described three basic approaches to history: the monumental, the antiquarian, and the critical. Of monumental history, Nietzsche wrote:
As long as the soul of history is found in the great impulse that it gives to a powerful spirit, as long as the past is principally used as a model for imitation, it is always in danger of being a little altered and touched up, and brought nearer to fiction. Sometimes there is no possible distinction between a “monumental” past and a mythical romance, as the same motives for action can be gathered from the one world as the other. If this monumental method of surveying the past dominate the others,—the antiquarian and the critical,—the past itself suffers wrong.
In other words, monumental history is celebratory. It aims to build monuments to the “great men” of previous generations. The final sentence of the quotation above is crucial, because while monumental history celebrates the past, often by comparison with the present (whether implicitly or explicitly), it is nevertheless present-minded. Monumentalists hope to use the past as a model for a better present.
Antiquarian history, on the other hand, stems from a love of the past for its own sake–from an impulse to preserve. In Nietzsche’s words:
The antiquarian sense of a man, a city or a nation has always a very limited field. Many things are not noticed at all; the others are seen in isolation, as through a microscope. There is no measure: equal importance is given to everything, and therefore too much to anything. . . . It only understands how to preserve life, not to create it; and thus always undervalues the present growth, having, unlike monumental history, no certain instinct for it. Thus it hinders the mighty impulse to a new deed and paralyses the doer, who must always, as doer, be grazing some piety or other. The fact that has grown old carries with it a demand for its own immortality.
And finally, there is critical history. To Nietzsche, critical history is life-giving, in the sense that it creates a break with the past–a discontinuity–and enables change. Nietzsche’s tone when discussing critical history makes his affinity for it clear:
Man must have the strength to break up the past; and apply it too, in order to live. He must bring the past to the bar of judgment, interrogate it remorselessly, and finally condemn It. Every past is worth condemning: this is the rule in mortal affairs, which always contain a large measure of human power and human weakness. It is not justice that sits in judgment here; nor mercy that proclaims the verdict; but only life, the dim, driving force that insatiably desires—itself. The same life that needs forgetfulness, needs sometimes its destruction; for should the injustice of some- thing ever become obvious—a monopoly, a caste, a dynasty for example—the thing deserves to fall. Its past is critically examined, the knife put to its roots, and all the “pieties” are grimly trodden under foot. The process is always dangerous, even for life; and the men or the times that serve life in this way, by judging and annihilating the past, are always dangerous to themselves and others.
Of course, “change” and “progress” are not necessarily synonymous. Still, there is something to Nietzsche’s idea that history (that is, critical history) provides the means by which we make sense of the world in which we live, telling ourselves in effect, “That was then; this is now.”
Although Nietzsche proclaimed that each of “the three kinds of history will only flourish in one ground and climate: otherwise it grows to a noxious weed,” I would argue that each has its place in a survey course. Indeed, a good survey course probably requires a balance of all three. Too often, we imagine that the “outcomes” for a given course must be the same for all students. That is probably never true, but especially not in a broad survey course. Some students take the course because it is a general requirement; others take it as the stepping stone to further study in the field. We should aim to serve all of these populations (and many others not mentioned here).
Are we guilty of adopting the critical lens as our default setting, thereby narrowing the appeal of history for those who have no intention of becoming professional historians? I know I probably am at times, but incorporating elements of monumental and antiquarian history might better serve my students. In a survey, monumental history could take the form of a story–or better yet, multiple stories–which can be celebrated (but which can also be played against each other and against other types of history). In American history surveys, the metanarratives of American exceptionalism and progress come to mind. A history survey might also promote the appreciation of that which is distinct about the past; a sense that history is worth preserving, whether in the supporting museums and archives or historic preservation efforts.
Young people need heroes, and monumental history may give them something to which they may aspire (even if others in the course seek to tear those same “monuments” down). The survival of history as a discipline, meanwhile, requires the development of antiquarians, those who love everything about the past and want nothing more than to preserve it. We must inculcate a certain reverence for the past in our students, a desire to explore that which came before us.
But ultimately, we also need well-educated, critically-minded citizens who can critique the past (and the other two forms of history) in pushing us forward. It would irresponsible to abandon critical history, but incorporating monumentalism and antiquarianism may not be a terrible idea. Although it is by no means a perfect solution, Nietzsche’s demarcations may offer some guidance in developing a course that addresses a wide range of needs, while also helping students develop a sort of meta-awareness that history and the past are two very different things.