Category Archives: History

There’s a reason history should be taught…

I’ve been trying to think of a good first post to kick this blog off, and it seems the latest David Boaz article that seems to be sweeping the blogosphere is as good a place as any to start. So without further adieu…

On April 6th, published an article by the Cato Institute’s David Boaz entitled, “Up From Slavery“. The main premise of the article is that, hey, there never was a golden age of liberty and so libertarians should stop being so backward looking and appreciate the gains in liberty that have been made up to the present. For example, he says

“For the past 70 years or so conservatives have opposed the demands for equal respect and equal rights by Jews, blacks, women, and gay people. Libertarians have not opposed those appeals for freedom, but too often we (or our forebears) paid too little attention to them. And one of the ways we do that is by saying “Americans used to be free, but now we’re not”—which is a historical argument that doesn’t ring true to an awful lot of Jewish, black, female, and gay Americans.”

While I can certainly sympathize with the advice that those concerned with the spread of freedom acknowledge the fact that there never has been a “golden age of liberty”, it seems to be entirely possible to fall into the opposite fallacy: Ignoring what was once good by focusing too much on what was bad. This type of fallacy strikes me as even more dangerous than thinking we should all live like its 1885 because everybody already knows the types of injustices that were perpetuated onto blacks, females, gays and so forth. What many people, especially the young and those in college,  do not know is the amazing sense of individualism and freedom that has always characterized the American spirit and which made possible the freedom that practically all groups of people experience today. The civil rights movement did not originate out of a vacuum. It was, in so many respects, a quintessentially American movement; something not unlike a continuation of the American Revolution itself. And if David Boaz wants freedom to move even further along it would behoove him to keep the spirit of the American Revolution going.

Allan Bloom, in his classic book “The Closing of the American Mind”, makes this point well. He writes,

There is no immediate, sensual experience of the nation’s meaning or its project, which would provide the basis the for adult reflection on regimes and statesmanship. Students now arrive at the university ignorant and cynical about our political heritage, lacking the wherewithal to be either inspired by it or seriously critical of it.

Point being, if the American Revolution is maligned as nothing more than an exercise in white, male hegemony than what sort of incentive would anyone have to look for the good in it? Bloom is right- the American Revolution should be inspiring. While nobody claims it was perfect, one cannot help but admire the principled resistance to tyranny the early Americans brought to the table and the system of government they developed to try and keep tyranny at bay. There is good there and we should recognize that good on its own terms. We should also try to emulate that same resistance to tyranny and oppression.

Boaz’s point is well taken: Not everyone experienced liberty. Indeed, the majority of people in America probably didn’t experience the type of liberty Boaz advocates. But that is no reason to malign it all. Elsewhere in “The Closing of the American Mind” Bloom talks about

…the openness that invites us to the quest for knowledge and certitude, for which history and the various cultures provide a brilliant array of examples for examination.

His point is that true openness in the search for truth allows us to sift through historical situations and discover what was good and what was bad; what will be useful to us in the present and what we should discard. Boaz’s entire article strikes me as throwing the baby out with the bath water. This is wrong. A sense of historical identity is of the utmost importance. If people don’t know where we’ve come from, they won’t know where to continue going. If the good parts of American history aren’t known, what is left to imitate? Nothing, which is a very problematic concept indeed.