Wilfred M. McClay joins Brian C. Anderson to discuss American history and national identity.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is Wilfred McClay. Bill is the Victor Davis Hansen Chair in Classical History and Western Civilization at Hillsdale College. He’s the author of several books, including Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, and an accompanying young readers’ edition. He’s written several essays for City Journal over the years, and his work appears frequently in both scholarly and popular publications, including The Wilson Quarterly, The Wall Street Journal, National Review, First Things, and many, many other publications. Today we’re going to discuss America’s national identity and our connection to the past. So Bill, great to talk with you and thanks for coming on 10 Blocks.

Wilfred M. McClay: Thank you, Brian. It’s an honor. I’m a great admirer of City Journal and all that it’s done, and this is just an extension of it, so it’s a wonderful mission.

Brian Anderson: Well, thank you, Bill. So you published Land of Hope, which I encourage readers to pick up. It’s really a terrific history. That was right before the pandemic, I think, so 2019. So it’s been out there for a few years now. It’s viewed by many, especially those who are not on the Left, as a kind of corrective history to Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. But it also seems clear that you’ve had other broader motivations for writing it, from the need for a readable narrative history for students to a desire, which I think is very important, recreate a kind of civic connection between readers and the nation’s history. So I wonder, tell our listeners a bit about how you came to write Land of Hope and what approaches guided you in doing so.

Wilfred M. McClay: Yeah. Well, it wasn’t something I particularly wanted to do because as anybody who’s listening to this who has experience with academic life, writing a textbook is generally a road to being disesteemed by one’s colleagues and not taken seriously, and not taken seriously by the dean and others who control your salary and various other forms of recognition. So I had to have pretty strong motivation to do it, and I did. I won’t go through all the details, but in around 2014 maybe one defining moment for me was, I saw all the ways that K-12 education was being corrupted, including by Howard Zinn, whom by the way, I don’t know of a single reputable historian who has ever denied that Howard Zinn is bad history. But they haven’t felt moved to really do anything about it, and it’s used in thousands of schools all over the country.

Anyway, it really was when the College Board, the organization that administers advanced placement examinations—all of them, by the way, a monopoly that need not be—they began to change the AP test for U.S. history in ways that a lot of us found alarming. A group of us got together and I mean, they did things like really de-emphasizing the Founders, the founding, the Constitution, the debates over ratification of the Constitution, constitutional issues, and even to the point of omitting mention of George Washington and James Madison in the guidance materials that they supplied. It was kind of an appalling thing. And so a number of us, and I think we ended up having about 200 signatures, we wrote an open letter to the College Board pleading with them not to make these changes. And the thing got a lot of publicity and eventually the College Board backed down or seemed to back down, although they never acknowledged our letter. But they didn’t do anything to change the ways that the textbooks had been altered in anticipation of these new standards.

And the AP test, it has been until recently kind of the gold standard for assessment of historical knowledge. You people don’t trust grades because they’re inflated. They don’t trust a lot of other standardized measures. But the AP test has been until recently regarded as a kind of gold standard. So this was messing around with the currency, so to speak. And so a number of people came away from this saying, people smarter than me, more savvy than me, saying, “Well, this is just a stopgap, and really the indications are from the textbooks that this will go forward as soon as the hubbub dies down. And what we need is a new textbook.” And my response always was when this came up, that, “Fine, I hope you find somebody to do it.” I did not want to be the one to do it. But finally I was talked into it, and I published it with Encounter Books.

Roger Kimball was the person who talked me into it, and it was one of the most pleasant experiences I’ve ever had with a publisher. They left me alone, so the strengths and weaknesses of the book are ones that I can legitimately claim and cannot legitimately run away from. And it was really my product. It reflects the work of an individual human being. It doesn’t present itself as a sort of God’s-eye view, but it does try to be much more neutral, more generous to contending sides in our various national debates and dramas. So that’s part of the answer to your question. I wanted a more generous history, one that took into account human frailty. As the Bible says, “The measure you give is the measure you will receive.” And that if we would like to be treated well by the future, we ought to do a better job of treating the past in a fair and generous way.

Brian Anderson: For sure. The book, Bill, has received a number of pretty good reviews of it. I wonder how it’s fared as a textbook. Have any schools picked it up? Has it been adopted by homeschoolers? Are you getting any feedback from teachers, students, parents?

Wilfred M. McClay: Oh, I’m inundated with feedback. There are times when I wish I could just walk away from it all because I’m just one person, but also it’s very gratifying. People like the book. They want me to do more. They want me to do things to set up networks of where parents can sort of... Especially homeschoolers. The homeschoolers have loved the book, but they’re not the only ones. We’ve done well in independent schools, charters. We have not really been able to crack the sort of mainline public schools. Even in red states it’s been very difficult.

So the answer to your question is that we’re making progress, but it’s a long haul and it’s very labor-intensive. The educational market is a whole different thing from trade books. And you have to make contact with a lot of people. And maybe not in my lifetime will I see a book, my book or a book like mine, be adopted in public schools. But I’m trying. I’m doing my best, and I will appear at places where I’m asked to speak and try to do what I can to make the case for the book and the approach the book takes. Because I think, and this may lead into one of your other questions, but I think that we’re not doing well by our young people in giving them a heritage that they can draw upon and giving them a civic knowledge that is involved in really being a citizen of this country in any meaningful way.

Brian Anderson: Well, you gave a speech when you received the Bradley Prize in 2022 called Can We Become a Serious Country Again? And there you offered a series of questions exploring that theme. Would a serious country have run up a national debt of more than $30 trillion? But you closed with this particular one, and this is me quoting you, “Would a serious country so completely lose perspective on its own past that it would entertain the idea that the nation was founded on slavery rather than on the ideals that have made it a beacon to the rest of the world? And would a serious country think it appropriate to teach its children that the nation’s past is best understood as a parade of horrors to which the most appropriate response is not pride but lacerating shame.” So four years on from the publication of Land of Hope, and three years on from the horrible riots and statue toppling of 2020, what is your sense of where America stands on these things right now?

Wilfred M. McClay: Well, we’re not in good shape at all. And of course, in some ways we’re entering into a great national drama now with having our two leading presidential candidates both being under the microscope for their moral failings and possibly illegal acts, possibly treasonous acts. So that’s not a great thing to rally civic pride around for young people who tend to be very quick to judge. But I think another indication that may be more telling than the passing parade of politics is the National Assessment of Educational Progress, NAEP. Their assessments are colloquially known as the nation’s report card. And we had some really devastating news earlier this year, just a month or so ago, that the NAEP scores in history continue to drop, and for the first time they have dropped in civics. So we’re continuing to do a terrible job teaching history to young people, and civics is now registering in the negative category.

So that’s a real sign. It’s kind of an unimpeachable sign, if I could use that term, that we’re failing, and we’re failing at an increasing rate. What we’ve been doing isn’t working. So I think it’s very clear that we’ve got to return to something much more credal, you might say, to the idea that what we are doing in teaching young people—I’m not talking about college here. I’m talking about high schools and middle schools and even primary schools. It’s a process of initiating them into American life, initiating them into the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. We’re not called upon to deliver sermons about the national past, particularly sort of half-baked ones like the 1619 Project. What we wanted is for young people, they had to know, to understand, to have the tools and yes, to realize that they live in a society that has an extraordinarily worthy heritage of which they are the inheritors and for which they will be responsible in the coming generations to make good on the nation’s promises. So I think it should be an inspirational, challenging, but substantive exercise.

One of the things I’m very concerned about with civics is the growth of what’s variously called . . . Well, action civics is probably the best term, and that is that the best way to teach young people about civics is to have them be politically active, and they’ll learn in the process of that. It’s not completely implausible. Largely implausible, but not completely, because we do learn some things by doing. And I think one of the greatest experiences of citizenship that any of us will ever have is the experience of serving on a jury, which is something that, yes, you get a lot of instruction from the judge and so on, but in the end you learn by doing. You learn by the process of going through a trial, a civil or criminal trial, and learning how the advocates for the different sides operate, how to assess what they do.

And it’s still a remarkably good system because people are capable of the activity of self-rule if you give them the opportunity to exercise it, and the knowledge and experience involved in exercising it. But you can’t just call it “civic education” to turn nine-year-old kids out in the streets protesting against climate change. All they’re being is cheap troops for a political movement that has already told them what to think. That’s the opposite of what we want to do. I’m not particularly enthused about approaches to civics that teach the conflicts, that sort of teach that all points of view about the meaning of our national life are equally worthy of attention. You have some friends I strongly disagree with about this, that I think don’t think that’s the way. I think that’s what we’ve been doing to a large extent, and it hasn’t succeeded.

Brian Anderson: Well, you’re an intellectual historian. How do you explain the appeal of what you’re describing, this kind of iconoclasm that encourages young people to reject or hate their forebearers, their history, their heritage? Why does negation at least seem to have the upper hand in so many of our cultural debates these days?

Wilfred M. McClay: Well, that’s a really interesting question. Is there a kind of almost civilizational self-hatred that the West has to deal with periodically? I mean, one of the things we pride ourselves in rightly is that we are self-critical. Of course, pride is a double-edged word in any society that has a Christian tradition at its core. A better word than pride may be gratitude for the institutions that we have, but a willingness to subject them and our customs, our practices to criticism. This is an important feature of what the West is. I mean, the West is Athens and Jerusalem both. It has both of these things, in tension with one another.

That’s a hard thing for young people to understand. I’ve worked a lot with teachers. I spent eight years on the faculty of the University of Oklahoma running a summer institute every summer with teachers. And I became convinced that most of them, even the ones who really thought teaching a critical approach was the healthiest way to emphasize the tradition of descent and so on and so forth, I think the real problem is that they don’t realize the cumulative effect of this. They don’t realize what kids take away from a steady diet of that in the classroom, in popular culture, in the movies, you name it. At least in new movies. Older movies, you get a different view. I don’t think anybody on sort of my side of things would say, I know I wouldn’t say it myself, that we should promote an uncritical, jingoistic, “my country right or wrong” sort of view of the American past.

Not at all. And there are those who feel that we did that too much in the past. I actually think that argument is exaggerated. That would take a while to explain, but when I go back and look at textbooks from even the 1920s, they’re very critical, and they don’t ignore the issue of slavery. That’s the most preposterous argument, that somehow we haven’t paid any attention to slavery until the New York Times came along and in informed us about it. There’s always been that self-critical element in our understanding of the past. But it may be that in the wake of the Second World War that there was a kind of surge of an uncritical view of the nation’s past. I think that’s exaggerated, but what I will say is that we’ve come to a point where the overwhelmingly critical tenor of historical scholarship and the teaching that flows from it, that has been pretty much the norm since let’s say 1970, just to establish a date.

That’s a long time. That’s a long time to have that critical tenor be in the driver’s seat. It’s time for us to have a reassessment of that and take some of the criticism to heart, but also place it in a larger context with a larger perspective on just what this country has been for the bulk of its history, what it’s represented to the world, the ideals that it’s espoused and continued to espouse even when we have not lived up to them. This is, I think, the task before us now, is to try not to move the pendulum back exactly to what it was, but to incorporate what’s been valuable. And I would add to that, that it is true that the history books that I grew up with, they were very critical of slavery. They had very little to say about the actual experience of slavery, the texture of slave life in detail.

There were things like Frederick Douglass’s narratives, and that sort of thing was around, and I think I read Frederick Douglass in high school. But no, there’s a lot of scholarship, and some scholars have done brilliant stuff. Eugene Genovese, Lawrence Levine, people like that. Actually, I’m talking about another generation of historians, but that have really illuminated what life was like for those who were, as we say now, marginalized in the culture. And that’s good. That’s good. I think on the other hand, there’s a certain bare minimum of what people need to learn to be citizens. And I think learning about the Constitution, learning why we have the kind of constitution we have, it’s not just an arbitrary thing. It’s something you can understand perfectly well when you look at the Constitution as it arose out of the experience, not just of England, but of all of Europe, that it was an alternative to the absolutism on the continent in England and then more fully realized in America.

So we can understand that there’s a problem with the concentration of power. That’s what our constitution is really directed against. And we need to understand these things. We need to understand why things are set up the way they are. It’s not just arbitrary. It’s not easily found to be obsolete without having a sense of what it stood against and what you would put in its place. Socialism doesn’t have a terrific record when you actually look at the historical record. So all of these things need to be addressed. And I’m not against the social history that’s been so predominant for the last 50 years in scholarship and more and more in teaching. But I think the political history, the basic fundamentals, and certainly for civics—I mean civics has to do with citizenship. It doesn’t have to do with understanding the sort of life situation of all sorts of different people in your society. It has to do with thinking through what are our rights and responsibilities as citizens, in which we have, and we should have, a fundamental equality.

Brian Anderson: Well, Bill, a final question. We’re going to be looking at July 4th very soon, Independence Day. I wonder how you plan to spend it, how you normally spend it?

Wilfred M. McClay: Well, actually this particular 4th of July, I hate to say this, I’ll be out of the country. My wife and I are celebrating our 40th wedding anniversary. And so, we decided to go to Quebec City, although maybe while we’re there, we’ll rub their noses in their defeat of the French and Indian War. I may do a little of that. So, I will be in French Canada on the 4th of July. But no, normally—I’m living now in a very small town in Michigan, and I’ve only been here two years, but they have the most wonderful parade, and everyone turns out for it. And it’s small-town Americana and it’s best. And so that’s where I would be if I weren’t traipsing around in a foreign country.

But can I say something that’s related to your question? That I’m serving on what’s called the Semiquincentennial Commission, which is the group that’s supposed to plan the national celebration of our 250th anniversary as a country, 250 years after 1776, 2026. So, it’s coming up, and I have to tell you that it’s been a very frustrating experience. I think everybody involved is frustrated. It’s very hard right now to get people to come around to unifying themes and I’m not confident that we will. But the example of the past, we’ve had periods in the past, I don’t know how many of them have been as bad as the current acrimony, but we’ve had periods in the past where one way or another we have come together. Of course, we had the one time we fought a civil war. We didn’t come together. So, there’s that example too.

But serving on this commission, which has had a very hard time getting going, has been very sobering for me that this is not going to be automatic. I’ll just give you an example. We spent a long period of time and never resolved the issue as to whether we would call this a celebration, or a commemoration, or an observation, or a more neutral term. Nobody suggested a wake, but it might have been on some people’s minds. That gives you a sense on this commission of the breadth, the range of different points of view that we’re dealing with and the lack of consensus. And I will say, I came on the commission just around the time Land of Hope was being published. And so I showed up at a commission meeting and with a box of copies of the book, and I gave one to everybody on the commission, which set me back a bit.

It was about 30 people on my own dime, but I was glad to do it. And people were oohing and aahing as it was handed out. And the director at the time said, “I’d like you to make a few remarks.” And I saw my opportunity. So I got up and talked about the book a little bit, and then I said, “Look, this is either a celebration, what we are doing, or nothing. It is impossible for me to even imagine how it could be meaningful to the American people if those of us who are in a position to sort of lead sound such an uncertain trumpet about who we are and what we are.” And that’s there, I think. We need to pull back. We need to pull back from our petty, passing concerns and look at the larger picture, the extraordinary moment in human history that 1776 represented, and we’ve carried that on, and we’ve carried that out, and it’s up to us to continue to.

Brian Anderson: Well, I really appreciate you coming on.

Wilfred M. McClay: Well, it’s my pleasure.

Brian Anderson: More power to your efforts, honestly.

Wilfred M. McClay: Yes. Well, I’ve got a lot of help, but one thing the audience should know is that I was very pleased that my speech that you cited earlier was published in City Journal. So I was very happy to have that there. City Journal, wow. I mean, we could spend a week talking about all the things that you guys have done.

Brian Anderson: Well, thank you very much, Bill, and looking forward to getting you back in City Journal soon. Please check out Bill McClay’s work on the City Journal website. That’s at www.city-journal.org. We’ll link to his author page in the description. He’s been talking about his book, Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, which also comes in an accompanying Young Readers’ Edition as I had mentioned. You can find City Journal on Twitter, @CityJournal, and on Instagram, @cityjournal_mi. And as I usually say, if you like what you’ve heard on today’s podcast, please give us a nice rating on iTunes. Bill McClay, thank you again very, very much.

Wilfred M. McClay: Thanks a lot, Brian, and all the best to everyone there.

Photo: gorodenkoff/iStock

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