Teaching History for Liberty

David Randall

The following is the text of David Randall's speech given at Case Western Reserve University on April 2, 2018.

It’s dangerous to say that history is meant to be for something. That gives you license to distort the history. I say that you’re supposed to teach history for liberty, somebody in the next classroom says that liberty really means social justice, and then he’s teaching nothing but the history of protest and organization from Hammurabi to Obama. Two classrooms down the professor starts to taking the students out to the latest demonstration and calls that a history class. Soon everything but the Dummies Guide to Protesting gets disappeared from the classroom, from the library, from Google Books—from everywhere except some cave in the mountains with a cache of mildewed tomes.

So maybe it’s safer just to stick to the facts.

You do have to teach the facts—who did what, what happened when, which came first. Students need to learn that William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066, that Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, and Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776—with some help from the Writing Resource Center in Independence Hall. The past is a fog if you don’t have a basic framework of historical facts.

Students also need facts so they can analyze the whys and hows of history. They need to know that Jesus lived in the reign of the Emperor Augustus, not in the Roman Republic, and what the difference between the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire meant for the early spread of Christianity. They need to know that in 1860 there were 23 million Americans in the twenty-two northern states and five and a half million whites in the eleven southern states that were about to form the Confederacy. If they don’t, they won’t know why the North won the Civil War. Students should be able to put the American, French, and Russian Revolutions in chronological order—it’s the same as the alphabetical order, which helps. They should know—a large number of facts for every history test they take, and stow enough of them in their memory that they can understand literature, philosophy, religion, and current events.

You can’t have history without facts, but history’s never been just the facts. It’s always been about putting the past into patterns, about changing the present, and figuring out what sort of future we want. That much the social justice warriors have right. But they miss the most important part of history—understanding what mattered. What matters most about the war 2,500 years ago between the Persian Empire and the Greek city states led by Athens and Sparta? Is it that the free men of Athens and Sparta, like virtually all humanity, possessed slaves? If you think that, you’re indifferent about the result of the Persian Wars. Or is it that, unlike the rest of humanity, the rulers of the Greek states were free men who fought to preserve their freedom? If you know that, you know that the cause of human liberty rested with the hoplites at Plataea. And you know we should study the Greece that made those warriors, so we may learn how to preserve our own freedom.

We teach history for liberty to create free men, who know how liberty was achieved in the past to guide them as they strive to preserve it in the present and expand it in the future. The social justice brigades say they teach history much the same way, and truly the devil can quote scripture. But we can’t abandon teaching history for liberty just because the latest Newspeak calls slavery freedom. If history doesn’t create free men, it isn’t being taught right.

Read Abraham Lincoln’s Cooper Union Address, and a dozen other orations by Lincoln in the run-up to the Civil War. They weren’t just speechifying. They were close examinations of America’s constitutional history, taught by Lincoln to preserve liberty. For Lincoln, as for freedom-loving lawyers nowadays, you had to understand original intent. Just what had been the Founding Fathers’ attitude toward slavery?

Lincoln carefully examined the facts of history. Who precisely were the Founding Fathers? How had they voted on acts relating to slavery and federal power, such as the prohibition of slavery in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 in the territories from Ohio on west? What could Americans learn from history for the politics of liberty in the here-and-now of 1860?

The sum of the whole is, that of our thirty-nine fathers who framed the original Constitution, twenty-one – a clear majority of the whole – certainly understood that no proper division of local from federal authority, nor any part of the Constitution, forbade the Federal Government to control slavery in the federal territories; while all the rest probably had the same understanding. Such, unquestionably, was the understanding of our fathers who framed the original Constitution; and the text affirms that they understood the question "better than we."

The way we teach history should model itself on Lincoln’s scrupulous attention to historical fact, dedicated to the cause of liberty.

Unfortunately, we mostly don’t. The history that gets taught nowadays is light on facts, and historians choke on freedom. What the establishment teaches now is history to mold us either into passive subjects or self-righteous activists, servants or bully-boys of our would-be masters.

So there’s some big arguments here. One is a claim about the history of history writing since the days of Greece and Rome. I’m arguing that history really has been about teaching liberty, and that you can teach history so that you can learn the facts and still be committed to freedom. The second claim is about history education here and now, that history’s getting taught the wrong way in America in 2018. Finally there’s a third argument that builds on the first two, about what changes we should make in how we teach history in America so that we teach history for liberty once more.  I’m going to go through these three arguments one after the other.

First the argument about the nature of history writing, the claim that history really has been about teaching liberty, and that you can teach history so that you can learn the facts and still be committed to freedom. Here’s where I get to sound like a proper professor of history—it’s a complicated story.

Defining what the genre of history should do is an intricate question, all the way back to when Herodotus wrote The Persian Wars and Thucydides The Peloponnesian Wars. The Greeks and Romans thought history was supposed to be true and that history was supposed to persuade the reader to imitate the virtuous actions of the heroes of the past and to avoid the vicious actions of the villains. The reader was also supposed to act intelligently as he decided how his republic should behave. The reader of Thucydides was supposed to admire and imitate the noble and sagacious Pericles and to disdain the too-clever and too-treacherous Alcibiades.

Now, the Greeks and the Romans knew about the subtle historical thesis, nice guys finish last. You can say they argued so vehemently that virtue and success went together because they were maybe a little anxious that the conclusion didn’t always hold true. But whether from anxiety or uncomplicated belief, they still did argue that history should show how virtue and success go together. And they had some good examples to prove their point that virtue is more than its own reward. When they wrote the history of Rome, they could say that the city had displayed the virtue of loyalty to its allies throughout the Italian peninsula, had been repaid in turn with their loyalty during the Second Punic War, and so had risen to be an empire—conqueror of Carthage, master of the Orient, supreme over all challengers. As the author of Maccabees put it in the second century BC, far off in Judaea the Hasmonean rebels knew that “with their friends, and such as relied upon them … [the Romans] kept amity.”

The Greeks and Romans thought history was supposed to persuade you to virtue, but also to tell the truth. Cicero said that “history’s first law … [is] that an author must not dare to tell anything but the truth … its second [is] that he must make bold to tell the whole truth … there must be no suggestion of partiality anywhere in his writings.” History wasn’t supposed to be a noble lie.

That’s ancient historians. Go forward fifteen hundred years to the Renaissance, and now people aren’t sure it’s so easy to be virtuous and effective at the same time. Machiavelli twists the knife and forces everybody in Europe to acknowledge that success, virtù, isn’t the same thing as virtue. He cuts apart the whole European mental world and he does the same thing to history. Machiavelli says you should read history to imitate the successful, not the good. A prince should avoid vice, but “he needn’t be anxious about getting a bad reputation for vices without which it [will] be hard for him to save his state.” Machiavelli snaps the old tie between writing history and promoting virtue.

One response to this is to say that virtue in a historian now just means the professional virtue of getting the facts right. In a way, Machiavelli’s responsible for the dryasdust pedant, who thinks the point of writing history is to get the footnotes right—and the point of teaching history is to make sure students know how to footnote. It’s also partly the fault of lawyers turned historians. Legal humanists like François Hotman in France and John Selden in England turned the lawyer’s exacting study of usage and precedent into a basic tool of historical research. Just as a good lawyer knows what the law has been, so a good historian came to know what history has been.

But that wasn’t the only response. Historians could also substitute liberty for virtue.

Historians already had that idea in the early Renaissance. Early in the 1400s Leonardo Bruni’s History of the Florentine People fused the old encouragement to virtue with a new encouragement to liberty. Bruni wrote the history of Florentine liberty to inspire Florentine citizens to continue to uphold their republic’s freedom. But Machiavelli made it essential for historians to teach liberty, because that was the only road back to virtue once he’d chopped away the alternatives.

It’s an analogue to his political theory. Machiavelli’s republic is so many amoral men seeking their own interest, but put them in a properly ordered republic, and all their self-interested striving will produce liberty, a free state where men are free to judge what virtue is, and free to seek to do good as they understand it. Machiavellian history likewise is so many amoral facts, whose only virtue is their accuracy, arranged to encourage the reader to uphold liberty, and to judge for himself the patterns of virtue in history. Machiavellian history takes the factual accuracy of pedants and lawyers and puts it in the service of liberty to inspire men to do good.

Machiavelli’s republican political theory leads by a winding road to James Madison’s, and to the crafting of our constitution. There’s a parallel road toward the modern conception of teaching history for liberty. Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire wittily footnotes a narrative of high politics, religion, and society that describes how the greatest of states can fall if men choose to allow it to decay. David Hume’s History of England parts from the happy Whig whitewash about the history of British liberty to point out that to redefine regicide and revolution as the inevitable result of progressive revolution will lead equally inevitably to further murders and revolutions. Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolutions of France broadens the old conception of fragile liberty from the realm of politics to all of society, and warns that the new barbarians will destroy every private good and virtue along with the free state if we do not act to preserve our liberty.

We still model the way we teach the history of liberty on Gibbon, Hume, and Burke. And I want to emphasize—that model forms the way we teach. When you see historical study as an arena for free discussion and free understanding, and the world around you as an arena for free speech and free action, you also think of the classroom that way. Teaching history for liberty means teaching students how to combine legal scrupulousness with free thought—to be faithful to the facts of history, but also to think freely about the nature of the contingent past, to discuss it freely, and to understand it freely. The classroom that teaches history for liberty teaches students how to act as free citizens.

We don’t have enough of those classrooms. And the establishment in charge of teaching history is trying to get rid of the few we have. The worst problem is the progressives who want to teach history for social justice. They’re raising a generation of Americans to be subjects or activists, but not to be free men.

That’s a bold assertion. Obviously there are complications. Let me talk a bit about what I mean.

Liberty has doppelgangers who use the language of freedom to impose slavery, and some of those doppelgangers teach history. The Whig story of inevitable progress, greased with blood, soon shifted toward the realm of society and economics, where abstract developments among the mass of men transformed the world. This strand of history dedicated itself to what the historian E. H. Carr called “the possibility of unlimited progress … towards goals which can be defined only as we advance towards them.”  These successive goals have included the French Revolution; the Marxist class struggle; anti-imperialist liberation; and so on. History skips from liberation to liberation, but somehow history is never about liberty. When you see history as progress toward an inevitable ideal, all you need to do is learn how to serve that ideal until the next inevitability comes along.

The current iteration is teaching history for social justice. Definitions of social justice education vary, but here’s a good one by one of its champions:

social justice education [is] … the pedagogical practice of guiding students toward critically discussing, examining, and actively exploring the reasons behind social inequalities and how unjust institutional practices maintain and reproduce power and privilege that have a direct impact on students’ lives. … students … also must recognize that they are agents of change … awareness turns to action and transformation of the world around them.

When you teach history for social justice, you have to teach critical historical knowledge and critical sociopolitical literacy, and those have to culminate in application with agency. “Application with agency can be implemented in myriad ways. Students can promote awareness of social injustices through artistic expression, writing campaigns to local and national government officials and agencies, and digital media …, or through the planning of actual grassroots protests.”

What you don’t have to do is teach much of the facts of history. All social justice history cares about is cherry-picking whatever arbitrary selection of facts will motivate students to become social justice activists. But the indifference to facts is rooted in the social justice conception of history. Historical details don’t much matter if you believe in the inevitable progression of history toward some ideal. The details of history only matter if you believe that men freely make history by the interplay of individual choice in contingent events. Free actions are the details of history. Teaching history for liberty requires students to pay attention to the details. Teaching history for social justice thrives on inattention.

Right now I’m studying Massachusetts’ proposed revision of its K-12 history standards. Massachusetts had a pretty darn good standard, rigorous and focused on teaching liberty. All the proposed changes change the standards toward teaching social justice—and toward getting rid of the historical details. The old standards provide long lists of facts students should know. The new ones say students may research one topic, teachers may include an example from the list—the teacher has discretion to teach as much as one fact, where before they had to teach five. Read the dull bureaucratic prose and you can see the acid of social justice eating away the past.

Every state has its own social justice horror story. Then there’s national changes, like the College Board’s Advanced Placement American and European history examinations. Those are the hinge for an extraordinary amount of K-12 and college education. Advanced Placement’s now about testing for “college readiness,” so every high school student is supposed to take an AP test just to prove that their high school education wasn’t completely hollow. The College Board has an effective monopoly for advanced placement, so high schools now frame their entire high school history curriculum to prepare their students for the AP tests. Teacher training also gets bent around the AP tests, the textbooks get selected to fit the AP history tests—and because the textbook companies sell the same textbooks as introductory college history textbooks, the AP shapes college education as well. Even if you’re home-schooled, you have a financial incentive to take the AP exam for the hope of advanced credit.

And the College Board’s also been taken over by the folks who teach history for social justice instead of for liberty. The history the College Board gives in their detailed Course and Examination Guides is history with as little freedom as possible, and the maximum amount of social justice. It’s designed to “aid in the formulation of one’s own goals and commitments … the past struggles of women and workers can inspire us as we develop tactics in the struggle for the rights of others today.” The idea that we should study the past to aid us in preserving our liberty is entirely absent.

To make their history support social justice activism, the College Board has to suppress a great deal of the past and distort more. If you want to inspire students to struggle for social justice, they should think they’re struggling against a horrible system, so the College Board provides a remarkably sour and incomplete account of European and American history. The College Board had to be prompted to include Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison in their account of American history, and the ideals they thought out received proportionately short shrift. The College Board tells the story of Europe with the very words liberty and freedom almost absent. In both, the Board crafts its central narrative around the inevitability of social and economic forces, the rise of the well-administered welfare state, and, with approving tone, the rise of modern protest movements.

You can’t tell that story without leaving out an awful lot. The College Board leaves out the importance of faith to the human soul and to the shape of history. It reduces the barbarity of the Soviet Union to a pale shadow. The unique Western role in creating the modern architecture of human knowledge, from art history to mathematics to geology, vanishes virtually without a trace. The Board leaves out individuals and the deeds they accomplished—it defines the spread of diseases and plants between the Old and the New Worlds as “the Columbian Exchange,” but never mentions the man “Columbian” was named after. It leaves out or minimizes institutions of liberty such as the free market, Parliament, and common law.

The brutal simplification of history for social justice has to leave out the history of liberty.

Then there’s the way history gets taught in college. I won’t rehash the argument that there’s progressive bias in college history instruction, that professors generally teach a history aligned around social justice, that they have virtually eliminated the fields of political, intellectual, diplomatic, and military history, and teach a monotonous litany of race, class, and gender to explain all of human history. I’ll just say that I made a quick skim of Case Western’s history department’s webpage, and I wasn’t surprised to find an article by Professor Ted Steinberg that says modern capitalism is essentially an exploitative system that produces ecological disaster.

I think it’s more worth focusing on the younger generation of history teachers, who now see history as inextricably intertwined with social justice advocacy. You’ll find this especially with teachers associated with civic engagement and service-learning. At the University of Colorado at Denver, the Social Justice program, dedicated to “work in a collaborative and cooperative manner to advance issues and create change,” includes courses on US Labor History, Feminist Thought, and Consumer Culture. Case Western already has a Social Justice Institute, founded by a professor in the history department. The Institute’s still fairly small, but it says it wants to expand and spread social justice education throughout the curriculum. I expect it will.

History should be taught for liberty. Right now it isn’t much, and the prospects for the immediate future don’t look good. So—as Lenin said—what is to be done?

Political action is essential. We must engage in a sustained political effort to free history education from the stranglehold of social justice education. We must ensure that freedom-loving citizens have enough say on state boards of education to counter the surreptitious changes of progressive advocates. We must dismantle the educational monopolies that allow progressives to impose their dogma—for example, by creating a rival assessment company to the College Board, whose tests must be placed on an equal footing with the College Board’s at public universities. We must change teacher licensing credentials so as to remove the grip of the education schools, which are factories of social justice indoctrination.

We also have to create a positive, concrete program for teaching history for liberty. Most importantly, we must develop a consensus curriculum that embodies teaching for freedom. I wish we didn’t have to do this. I’d rather each school had its own curriculum, each of them offering its own take on the history of liberty. But right now we face a broadly unified movement to replace the history of freedom with the history of social justice—and so we must provide a unified opposition. The entire coalition of liberty needs to come together to draft a history curriculum. That curriculum needs to be as broad as possible, to maximize its political support, while still maintaining an essential devotion to freedom.

But the most important thing is to remember and articulate why we value teaching history for liberty—to remember the ideal that must inspire our political action. We wish to create a love for freedom so strong that it extends to a love of our fellow citizens as they exercise their own freedom. We wish to make liberty part of our flesh and blood, part of every breath we take.

Robert Hayden has a poem about Frederick Douglass.

When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful

and terrible thing, needful to man as air,   

usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,   

when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,   

reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more   

than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:   

this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro   

beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world   

where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,   

this man, superb in love and logic, this man   

shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues’ rhetoric,   

not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,

but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives   

fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.

We teach the history of liberty to flesh our dream of the beautiful, needful thing, and make it truly instinct. If we haven’t done that, we’re doing it wrong.


Image Credit: Public Domain

  • Share

Most Commented

October 31, 2023


University of Washington Violated Non-Discrimination Policy, Internal Report Finds

A faculty hiring committee at the University of Washington “inappropriately considered candidates’ races when determining the order of offers,” provided “disparate op......

January 24, 2024


After Claudine

The idea has caught on that the radical left overplayed its hand in DEI and is now vulnerable to those of us who seek major reforms. This is not, however, the first time that the a......

December 9, 2023


The Presidents and Academic Freedom

What are the boundaries of “free speech?” They are pretty much the same as the boundaries of civilization. Savages need not apply....

Most Read

May 15, 2015


Where Did We Get the Idea That Only White People Can Be Racist?

A look at the double standard that has arisen regarding racism, illustrated recently by the reaction to a black professor's biased comments on Twitter....

October 12, 2010


Ask a Scholar: What is the True Definition of Latino?

What does it mean to be Latino? Are only Latin American people Latino, or does the term apply to anyone whose language derived from Latin?...

September 21, 2010


Ask a Scholar: What Does YHWH Elohim Mean?

A reader asks, "If Elohim refers to multiple 'gods,' then Yhwh Elohim really means Lord of Gods...the one of many, right?" A Hebrew expert answers....