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“Bring Us Together”: A Conversation with Presidential Historian Richard Norton Smith

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Last week, we caught up with Richard Norton Smith, former director of five presidential libraries, author of celebrated American biographies and a frequent commentator on the American Presidency.

Smith spoke with us about the state of civics and history education in the wake of an historic presidential election.

Like many, Smith hopes that record youth turnout in the recent election will herald a time of greater public engagement in our shared history and our common civic responsibilities. But he cautions us against complacency.

Even now, he reminds us, educators must compete with a popular culture that erodes our common heritage and consigns history to a cable channel. History risks becoming little more than a consumer choice on equal footing with Brittney Spears or Entertainment Tonight. Smith believes the education community can play a vital role in restoring history and civics as a “common language” that reveals unity amid the nation’s growing diversity.

He offers ample food for thought as we inaugurate a president whose election marks a critical chapter in the nation’s long struggle towards its founding ideals. Here’s hoping that the story of that struggle remains part of our children’s common inheritance.

Download our full, 16-minute interview here, or read the interview transcript below.

[Listen to about 6 minutes of interview highlights]

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: You've been the director of five presidential libraries and have presumably devoted a lot of thought to their educational mission. Do you think American students are getting enough civic and history education?

SMITH: Oh god... (Laughing).

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: That doesn't sound like yes.

SMITH: (laughing). No. They are not. And the moment I say that, I qualify it with an expression of sympathy for any teacher, at any level, who is competing with a mass culture that encourages historical and civic illiteracy, if indeed not illiteracy generally. It's important to get that right up front. No, they're not. And the evidence of that is to be found in every survey that's been taken for as long as I can remember.

It is an interesting speculative question [what would happen] if you asked “the rank and file” of American teenagers 50 years ago how much they knew about the Battle of Yorktown or Sojourner Truth -- but we're not living 50 years ago. We're living today. And the evidence is overwhelming that we are not imparting to young people a sense of not only where we came from, but, as a result, who we are. And who we might become.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: As you know, a lot has been made recently of the fact that many young voters turned out for the recent election. And some people, including people in the education community--whether they are Obama supporters or not--have seen this as a very encouraging sign that could in fact herald greater engagement among youth in civic matters, but also greater interest in the nation's history and future. Do you think this is true?

SMITH: I'd like to think that's true, but I think the evidence for that is very tenuous. If you look at the subsequent election, for example, in Georgia--and I'm not taking sides--you saw a precipitous drop-off of the very voter groups that had come out a few weeks earlier and given Obama relatively a very strong showing. Including young people.

My hope is that what you say is absolutely correct, that this portends an ongoing, increasing interest in and involvement in public life, however you define that. On the other hand, if you flip that coin and look at the other side, it is just as logical, based upon what we know of voting patterns in the country, that the increased turnout is in reaction to dissatisfaction with the course of events.

A few years ago we were all wringing our hands over voter apathy, particularly among young people. Well, guess what? [There’s] nothing like an unpopular war and economic recession to encourage people to turn out to vote. And in fact, again, if you look at voting patterns you find there are elections of confirmation--say Bill Clinton's reelection in '96 or Ike's reelection in '56, where there's an atmosphere of general satisfaction with the status quo and, not surprisingly, voter turnout tends to go down.

Then there are elections of repudiation, like certainly 1932, [or] arguably 1980, when anger and unhappiness tend to drive the numbers up.

Then, once in a while, there are elections like 1960, which wasn't an angry election. But it was very much an election about change, particularly generational change. And my hope is that the election we've just been through is in fact a sequel, half a century delayed, to that election. Look what happened in the the Sixties. It wasn't simply that young people turned out to vote. Young people took to the streets.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: A lot of people have said that they're happy to have that era behind us.

SMITH: Well, you know, that is one of the great ironies, because here you have a new president who in many ways is a beneficiary of The Sixties, who nevertheless, from the very beginning of his campaign, made very clear his desire to have the country move beyond the hot-button issues and cultural divisions left over from The Sixties.

If you look at the last 30 years certainly, maybe 40 years, of American politics, going back to the mid-60s, there's been a fault line in American politics, and it's been less the old economic one than a cultural one. How you felt about the The Sixties was the single-best indicator of how you were likely to vote. If you thought The Sixties were a period of long-overdue social justice, when people were brought in from the margins of society, when liberation in the broadest sense of the word came into the culture, when we indulged in some healthy self-criticism.... If you believed that about The Sixties, then the odds were, for example, that you would vote for Bill Clinton.

If, on the other hand, you saw The Sixties as a breakdown of not only traditional values but fundamental, individual responsibility, the odds were you would vote the other way.

And it's fascinating to me if you look, for example, at the Clinton presidency-- a president who said the era of big government is over, who, with help from Congress produced balanced budgets--this was not a radical or even particularly liberal--as the term is loosely used today–presidency. But it was a polarizing presidency. And I think the reason is that the country was divided 50/50, not so much politically in conventional terms, but culturally.

I think it's a welcome sign that the president-elect believes that if we are going to get done some very difficult and overdue accomplishments, we'd better move beyond those distractions.

Forty years ago, the day after he was elected president, Richard Nixon had a press conference and he cited a sign he'd seen in Deshler, Ohio, from a young woman who hollered up and said, "Bring us together." Well, we all know how that turned out. But 40 years later, a very different president-elect seems to be conveying the same message.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Well, that does raise the question about the mission of public educators in this environment. Because we've got a presidential inauguration right around the corner, many people are seeing this as an occasion to promote civics or history education.

Is there a way in which the public education community can help channel the most positive energy, if you want to call it that, of this election and help the nation transcend some of the cultural divisions that have hamstrung our political process?

SMITH: Well, that's a very large question, and I would not pretend to be professionally qualified to answer it.

I'll tell you what my gut tells me, which is, you have to be involved in that process. If you're not involved in that process, things will only get worse. And that means teaching history not as a catalog of crimes and not as mindlessly celebratory story either, but bringing the past to life in ways that have relevance, that engage young people.

I have always been bewildered by people who say, "Oh god, history, it's so dull." Now, maybe it seemed dull because, to be honest, maybe it was taught badly. Maybe it was reduced to mind-numbing treaties and irrelevant battles and dates. But that's not history. That's a calendar.

History is the most colorful, dramatic, emotional, inspiring, outraging subject I can think of. It is life. And if we walk away from it or if we minimize it or over-simplify it, it seems to me we're doing a great disservice to ourselves.

It's an article of faith that we're a more diverse nation than ever before. I think we're a more just, inclusive and, indeed, representative nation than we have been in the past, and that is all to the good.

That is no small measure of the history that has been going on for 200 years: the ongoing story of a country that over time, often with help from people taking not only to the classrooms but to the streets, has gradually fulfilled some of the promises we made to each other at the birth of the republic. That is a remarkable story, and it's ongoing. And everyone who went to vote, no matter whom they voted for, was part of that story.

And it seems to me we need desperately to become, again, a “water cooler nation,” a nation speaking a common language. And I don't mean that in the purest sense of the word, but [we need] things we have in common--and they shouldn't be Britney Spears or the latest celebrity divorce or even last week's box office grosses. They ought to be Gettysburg and Rosa Parks--and an endless source of possibilities. And I think the common culture, the popular culture, has both a lot to answer for and, correspondingly, a lot to give.

I hate to think that history and civics are going to be simply one more niche in a niche culture, that they're in a ghetto on PBS or the History Channel, even though they do it very well. But my hope is that educators across the board would not be bashful, first of all, in thanking those [groups in] the media and the culture that are addressing these needs and, secondly, in lobbying for more.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: I think you'll find that many educators are doing just that.

SMITH: I'm sure that's true.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: I liked your caution against the niche culture. One of the things that worry many people in the education community is that when everything becomes a marketplace, a consumer choice, we lose this common thread.

SMITH: You're absolutely right. Without getting partisan, one of the useful if painful lessons, it seems to me, of the last few months in particular has been that market forces are not a deity to be worshiped uncritically. And that certainly includes what, for lack of a better cliché, I'll call the popular culture.

The fact is, we have a culture that has been on a downward spiral for a very long time, and we have some very difficult questions to ask about intellectual democracy. We have more opportunities than ever before to gain information, but are we more informed? I doubt it. We have more choices on the tube than ever before, but maybe the best choice we ought to make is to turn the thing off and open a book.