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Forgetting American History

by Darrin McMahon

In his post several days ago, Casey Blake alludes to a disturbing trend in European intellectual circles--the tendency to "read back from the present moment to a sweeping condemnation of American history as a whole." European attitudes toward America are of course varied and complex--it is something I have been thinking a lot about of late as a collaborator for a forthcoming PBS documentary on the subject (see a clip here at the website of the Center for New American Media). But Casey touches on an interesting fact: Europeans, in general, don't know much about American history, and many don't seem to care. Whereas you can go to almost any small college in America and find, say, a professor or two of French or German history, you will be hard-pressed to find a professor of American history anywhere in France or Germany. There are, to be sure, notable exceptions, as well as a number of programs teaching a kind of trendified American studies--film courses with heavy doses of Zizek and Critical Theory and that sort of thing. But a course on the American Revolution, the New Deal, or the Civil War? Good luck. This is not an entirely new development, and it says something about European insularity, as well as an inveterate cultural condescension (eg. America is too young to have a history). But as one commentator to a post of mine pointed out recently, there was a time during the cold war when even America's most virulent detractors were well versed in American high culture, and probably American history too. In part that was because Americans themselves were working harder then to get the message out. Tom Bender has been arguing recently that American historians should do more to overcome parochialism, making their work intersect with the big world out there. That is one route. But another is the type of cultural diplomacy that we did so much of during the cold war when Europe clearly "mattered"--visiting lecturers, exchanges, chairs at European universities, and so forth. Given the centrality of America's relationship to the rest of the world today, everyone has an interest in knowing more about our past.