The Driving Force Institute was privileged to talk with Dr. James McPherson, history professor emeritus at Princeton University, about why American history matters. Following is a summary of that discussion.
DFI: What do you say to those who think history is irrelevant? Why does it indeed matter?
McPherson: The past is vitally connected to the present by hundreds of unbreakable threads. If we want to understand the world in which we live today, we must know and understand how and whey it came to be the way it is over the years and centuries of the past. A person who wakes up one morning with a case of total amnesia would be unable to function–he wouldn’t know who he is, how to behave, how to function, and so on. The same is true for a person who does not know the past of his society–he would know nothing about that society and how to function within it.
DFI: We, like you, believe that American history knowledge is important, relevant, and critical. In your own words, why is this the case?
McPherson: One cannot function as an intelligent citizen in American society and polity without a knowledge of the evolution over time of that structure of that society and polity any more than one can function in a family without a knowledge of the structure of the family and how it got to be that way over time.
DFI: What is the single most important event in American history that every person should study and understand?
McPherson: The Civil War and Reconstruction, whose results are embodied in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution and a plethora of laws and court decisions and cultural and social and economic institutions that continue to shape the society we live in today.
DFI: What ways could we improve the teaching of American history? How can we support educators in making these changes?
McPherson: History is a thrilling story of change over time, and it can engage and excite students if it is taught at a story rather than as a congeries of dates and names to be memorized.
James McPherson is the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History, Emeritus at Princeton University. McPherson received the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. The former president of the American Historical Association, he earned his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University.