A New American History Text

Land-of-Hope_lowres-310x460I was surprised to read an ad in the current Claremont Review criticizing the American history text I used in high school, The American Pageant, as hopelessly anti-American. As a student, I thought the book was great. The author, Thomas Bailey, had a talent for identifying anecdotes that made history come alive. (I heard later that he paid his grad students to find the anecdotes, but I don’t know whether that’s true). Maybe things have changed in the new editions, or maybe I simply didn’t notice the problems at the time. The Wikipedia page about the book says that the new authors have simplified the language to make it more accessible to contemporary teens, which sounds ominous. Anyway, this forthcoming American history textbook from Encounter Books by scholar Wilfred McClay (University of Oklahoma) Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, looks like a good buy for readers with kids in high school. Here’s the publisher’s description:

We have a glut of text and trade books on American history. But what we don’t have is a compact, inexpensive, authoritative, and compulsively readable book that will offer to intelligent young Americans a coherent, persuasive, and inspiring narrative of their own country. Such an account will shape and deepen their sense of the land they inhabit, and by making them understand that land’s roots, will equip them for the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship in American society, and provide them with a vivid and enduring sense of membership in one of the greatest enterprises in human history: the exciting, perilous, and immensely consequential story of their own country.

The existing texts simply fail to tell that story with energy and conviction. They are more likely to reflect the skeptical outlook of specialized professional academic historians, an outlook that supports a fragmented and fractured view of modern American society, and that fails to convey to young people the greater arc of that history. Or they reflect the outlook of radical critics of American society, who seek to debunk the standard American narrative, and has had an enormous, and largely negative, upon the teaching of American history in American high schools and colleges.

This state of affairs cannot continue for long without producing serious consequences. A great nation needs and deserves a great and coherent narrative, as an expression of its own self-understanding; and it needs to convey that narrative to its young effectively. It perhaps goes without saying that such a narrative cannot be a fairy tale or a whitewash of the past; it will not be convincing if it is not truthful. But there is no necessary contradiction between an honest account and an inspiring one. This account seeks to provide both.

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