History for a Democracy

History for a Democracy

Wilfred M. McClay

Americans are said to be notoriously indifferent to the past. They are thought to be forward looking, practical,...

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Americans are said to be notoriously indifferent to the past. They are thought to be forward looking, practical, innovative, and results oriented, a people passionately committed to new beginnings and second (and third) chances. They are optimists and dreamers, whom the green light of personal betterment and social transformation always beckons, and whose attitude toward history was conclusively (if crudely) summarized in the dismissive aphorisms of Henry Ford, the most famous perhaps being this: "History is more or less bunk."

Maybe those propensities were inevitable features of the American way of life. The United States has been a remarkably energetic and prosperous mass democracy, shaped by the dynamic forces of economic growth, individual liberty, material acquisitiveness, technological innovation, social mobility, and ethnic multiplicity. In so constantly shifting a setting, a place where (in Henry David Thoreau's words) "the old have no very important advice to give the young," what point is there in hashing over a past that is so easily and profitably left behind? "Old deeds for old people," sneered Thoreau, "and new deeds for new." That could almost be the national motto.  

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