Three Cheers for 'Land of Hope'
An American history textbook that you want your kids to learn from.
We are living through a year when the consequences of more than a generation of poor parenting and terrible education can be observed, in all their odiousness, in the streets of American cities. The young rioters, vandals, bullies, thugs, arsonists, and statue-topplers who pose as anti-fascists and racial-justice warriors do not just hate Confederate Civil War generals and certain specific institutions that, after sober and informed consideration, they have judged to be ethically inexcusable; they hate our country itself, and they hate its history, every bit of it, although they actually know next to nothing about either the country or its history.
As they take to, and take over, the streets – destroying where they are incapable of contributing, and harming and abusing many of those on whose behalf they claim to be protesting – these cruel, callow agitators are venting a rage that they themselves do not even understand and are targeting it at strangers who have done nothing whatsoever to harm them. Though they do not realize it, the people at whom this fury should properly be directed are, first, their overindulgent parents who refused to place the strictures upon them that most children desperately want and need, and, second, the ideologically driven teachers and professors who told them repeatedly over the years that America is irredeemably evil and that there is nothing they can do about that fact other than to tear the whole thing down.
To an extraordinary extent, the picture of America that exists inside these brats’ heads is the product of a single monumentally mendacious book – namely, The People’s History of the United States by the late Communist writer Howard Zinn, which has for years (thanks in part to some educators’ determination to indoctrinate and in part to the staggering neglect on the part of parents and politicians alike) been the default American history text in countless high-school and college classrooms.
In her recently published Debunking Howard Zinn, Mary Grabar has done a masterly job of cataloging Zinn’s radically one-sided misrepresentations, from his depiction of English colonists as uniformly genocidal monsters and Indians as uniformly peaceful lambs to his reprehensible drawing of moral equations between the U.S. and Nazi Germany. Reviewing Grabar’s book last September, before all the present urban mayhem broke out, I wrote: “A generation – or generations – of Americans raised on Howard Zinn can result only in an America that turns against its own founding values, in all their nobility, and that follows the likes of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and, God help us, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez down the path to socialist disaster.” Little did I imagine then that the path to disaster would in such short order lead these youths down the main streets of cities like Portland, Seattle, Kenosha, Louisville, and Ithaca.
If America can be saved from its current madness, that salvation will have to take the form, in part at least, of more responsible parenting and more honest and competent teaching, especially history teaching. A recent White House conference on history drew attention to this crucial matter, and drew attention, too, to a relatively new book by one of the conference participants, Wilfred McClay, a professor of history at the University of Oklahoma. That book – which is mainly intended to serve as a textbook for high-school courses in American history, and which was praised at the conference as filling the longstanding need for a balanced text in the field – is Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story.
In the year 2020, McClay’s title might seem, to many ears, saccharine and old-fashioned. “Hope”? “Great”? But the fact that we might blink nowadays at a history book that unabashedly characterizes America’s history as great and as a story of hope is nothing more than a reflection of the decadence of the era in which we live, an era in which the mediocre likes of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo can actually dare to tell us that “America was never all that great.” No, Governor Cuomo. If you stack up the good about America against the bad, and compare America to every other country that has ever existed, there is no way of denying it: America is a great country, whose lesson is indeed one of hope. For millions of immigrants who in their countries of origin knew only poverty and oppression, America was a cherished refuge that enabled them to live in unbelievable freedom and to see their children attain lives of unimaginable prosperity.
America’s example of social progress has given impetus to civil-rights movements around the world; its scientific, technological, and medical advances have benefited the whole of humanity; and its popular culture has become the world’s popular culture. America is unique not for having countenanced slavery but for having fought a war to end it; unique for having sent soldiers to other countries not to subjugate but to liberate; unique for having protected the free world for a half century from the planet’s great totalitarian aggressor, which, thanks to heroic American efforts, ultimately collapsed. Increasingly over the two and a half centuries of its existence, the people of America have given the rest of humanity a stirring example of life lived as an adventurous experiment in freedom, in the responsible pursuit of happiness; again and again, America has shown itself to be the country where the last can become first.
None of this to suggest that Land of Hope is vacuously pro-American propaganda. On the contrary, it is an eminently fair and balanced account of America, warts and all, pluses and minuses. Consider McClay’s treatment of slavery, which is of course probably the most challenging chapter in American history; indeed, the New York Times notoriously claims, in its “1619 Project,” that America was founded on slavery. How to cover this institution properly in a book aimed at teenagers? What should they make of the fact that some of their forebears, not so many generations ago, took slavery for granted, and that America’s founders, who were supposedly dedicated heart and soul to human freedom, wrote human bondage into our Constitution? McClay’s approach is admirable. Here is just part of his passage on the topic:
The ambivalences regarding slavery that had been built into the structure of the Constitution were almost certainly unavoidable in the short term in order to achieve an effective political union of the nation. What we need to understand is how the original compromise no longer became acceptable to increasing numbers of Americans, especially in one part of the Union, and why slavery, a ubiquitous institution in human history, came to be seen not merely as an unfortunate evil but as a sinful impediment to human progress, a stain upon a whole nation. We live today on the other side of a great transformation in moral sensibility, a transformation that was taking place, but was not yet completed, in the very years that the United States was being formed. Hence it would be profoundly wrong to contend, as some do, that the United States was “founded on” slavery. No, it was founded on other principles entirely, on principles of liberty and self-rule that had been discovered and defined and refined and enshrined through the tempering effects of several turbulent centuries of European and British and American history. Those foundational principles would win out in the end, though not without much struggle and striving, and eventual bloodshed. The United States enjoyed a miraculous birth, but it was not the product of an unstained conception and an untroubled delivery. Few things are.
I think that’s a pretty admirable piece of writing, one that says things that absolutely need to be said in a book like this and one that, I would suggest, is worth spending a full classroom hour on.
As is perhaps evident from this passage, Land of Hope is not one of those history textbooks that read as if they were written by a committee. Fortunately, in addition to being a credentialed professional historian, McClay is a gifted prose stylist and natural storyteller, and his book, published not by one of the major textbook companies but by Encounter, a New York house that specializes in serious non-fiction, is written in the rather personal and unapologetically literary voice of a single author. McClay doesn’t see it as his job merely to tick off major events with the relevant names, places, and dates; he wants, like a first-rate historical novelist, to help young readers to feel what life was like in various past ages; he wants them to see America’s great men and women as complex figures with flaws that underscore their humanity and that give fuller meaning to their greatness; and he wants them to understand the nature of the challenge they face when they undertake the study of history:
When we look back to a moment in the past, it is hard not to read into it nearly everything that we know is to come after it. We can’t help but see it as something carrying along with itself a future that we already know about, an awareness that gives us a perspective very different from that of the participants in that past moment….History is only very rarely the story of inevitabilities, and it almost never appears in that form to its participants. It is more often a story of contingencies and possibilities, of things that could have gone either way, or even a multitude of other ways. Very little about the life of nations is certain, and even what we think of as destiny is something quite different from inevitability. Every attempt to render history into a science has come up empty-handed. The fact of human freedom always manages to confound the effort to do so.
But enough about McClay’s expository passages. His narrative is just as good. He captures the excitement of the American story, the near-miracle of America’s achievements, and the simple beauty of America’s overall virtue with such effectiveness that a reader who also happens to be a patriot may at times find himself getting choked up. Doctor Johnson said that “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”; one might say with equal justice that when a man hates America, he hates humankind itself. For the American story is a great – the great – human romance, a stirring story of people who came from the four corners of the world not only to create a nation but also to forge a national spirit that is inextricably bound up with the noble idea of human freedom, with such values as self-reliance, initiative, inventiveness, ambition, and tolerance, and with the desire to make the most out of the glorious gift of human life. Only an utter cynic, a misanthrope, or a Communist could deny this. In Land of Hope McClay doesn’t just tell America’s story effectively; he captures America in the way that a great novelist captures an unforgettable protagonist. May this book sell prodigiously, be assigned at schools far and wide, and do its part to rescue America’s young people from the mischievous machinations of its enemies, foreign and domestic.