Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The History Dunces

Reading the increased traffic on Andrew Keen's Great Seduction blog has reminded me of how little awareness our electorate seems to have of history. This should be no surprise in light of how much of that electorate continues to believe specious propositions, such as the one about Barack Obama being Muslim; but I have to wonder whether our national ignorance of history is as "induced" by media noise as has been our ignorance of how Obama professes his faith. For example, if our voters have a warped view of Harry Truman, it may well be that the distortion can be traced back to current New York Times columnists. Now, however, I have to contend with Keen's embrace of a British critic arguing the superiority of British historians over American historians:

As the London Times' Juliet Gardiner suggests, Britain's greatest export to America are the country's historians. Imported British historians like Peter Brown, Simon Schama, Linda Colley and Mark Mazower are unmatched in an America which is rich in futurists, but whose historians are generally either overly academic or saccarine. Even the best historians of America are British -- the general narratives by Paul Johnson (A History of the American People) and Hugh Brogan (The Penguin History of the USA) being much more readable and worldly than anything that the natives have written.

This left me wondering just how many American historians Gardiner had taken the trouble to read, until I realized how moot this point was. Given how little Americans read at all (and, for that matter, is the current British public any better read?), it hardly matters whether or not their perception of their own country's history has been better rendered by Brits or Americans. Come to think of it, how many people, British or American, actually took the time to read Gardiner's article? Perhaps what our two cultures have in common these days is excessive reliance of "received wisdom," which, as at least some of us know, is little more than a euphemism for "received ignorance."

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