What History Should An American Know?

A Serbian Gypsy Family at Ellis Island. 

“Gitanos Augustus” by Augustus Sherman (1917), displayed at Statue of Liberty National Park.

 Image Credit: Wikimedia.

What history should an educated American be expected to know?

The most recent issue of Democracy Journal includes a long essay by Eric Liu on “cultural literacy,” a term coined by E.D. Hersh for the title of his 1988 book on “what every American should know.” Mr. Liu likes Hersh’s approach, but argues it must be updated to better fit multi-cultural, 21st century America. As Liu states:

The decades-long [culture] war is about to give way to something else. The question then arises: What? What is the story of “us” when “us” is no longer by default “white”? The answer, of course, will depend on how aware we are of what we are, of what our culture already (and always) has been. And that awareness demands a new kind of mirror….

First, Hirsch, a lifelong Democrat who considered himself progressive, believed his enterprise to be in service of social justice and equality. Cultural illiteracy, he argued, is most common among the poor and power-illiterate, and compounds both their poverty and powerlessness. Second: He was right.

A generation of hindsight now enables us to see that it is indeed necessary for a nation as far-flung and entropic as ours, one where rising economic inequality begets worsening civic inequality, to cultivate continuously a shared cultural core. A vocabulary. A set of shared referents and symbols.

Yet that generational distance now also requires us to see that any such core has to be radically reimagined if it’s to be worthy of America’s actual and accelerating diversity. If it isn’t drastically more inclusive and empowering, what takes the place of whiteness may not in fact be progress. It may be drift and slow disunion. So, first of all, we do need a list. But second, it should not be Hirsch’s list. And third, it should not made the way he made his.” [1]

 I encourage you to read the entire thing. The essay has been making the rounds on social media. I’d like to make three brief points in response:

1. Liu devotes a great deal of space to convincing his fellow progressives that an America whose citizens know their history is better than an America whose citizens do not. It is interestingand a tad bit depressingthat pieces like this are necessary. It should be obvious that a broad base of shared historical knowledge is a prerequisite for democracy, and that such knowledge is helpful in a few other domains as well. That the author must spend so much time justifying the mere idea of shared historical knowledge is discouraging.

2. The most interesting (and most divisive) topic up for discussion is what kind of history educated, culturally-literate Americans should be expected to know. This cannot be answered until we have a clear picture of how this historical knowledge will be used. Ancient historians like Plutarch viewed the study of history as a form of character developmentthrough studying the lives of great men of the past, the student would find inspiration and patterns he needed to become a more virtuous man in the present. Moderns are more prosaic: personal enjoyment and class signaling are probably the most common reasons history is studied or cited today.  These reasons are all narrow and private; none are compelling enough to demand historical literacy from every American who participates in the public square. 

Most other reasons given can be boiled down to one of three claims:

  • a) History helps one understand contemporary events from the long view. Some trends are only visible on long time scales; other crises make no sense without a thorough knowledge of the events that preceded them. Historical context matters; all politics is white noise without it.
  • b) History helps one understand today’s world as others understand it. History is a living thing. The words and actions of dead men echo through time, popping up in poems, speeches, songs, and books many years later. Most importantly, people’s perceptions of the past influence how they think about the future and how they act in the present. One cannot navigate the words and treatises of today’s thinkers—nor those of worthies now gone—without background knowledge of the events, people, and ideas they reference. 
  • c) History helps one understand how society actually works. This approach differs substantially from the other two. They are tethered to the world as it is – or as it is perceived – now. This approach suffers from no such limitations. It does not aim to tell the story of humanity, but to explore history and discover the dynamics or recurring patterns that make history what it has been and what it may be. We all have theories of cause and effect that we rely on to make decisions and predict what consequences these decisions will have. The data that these mental models are built upon is history.

I have discussed these categories in an earlier post on world history and its textbooks. Those curious about how each shapes the way world history is presented and understood in general surveys may find it of interest. But these categoriesand the purpose each is built aroundare also quite useful for the challenge Liu presents. Looking at potential items for the list of “21st Century cultural literacy terms” Liu would like to build in their light can help us prioritize what should make the list. 

Some items might be surprising. To pick one example: the history of the Roman republic is far removed from 21st century America. At first glance it is unlikely to make it on the list. However, it is quite important for reason b), as the people who created the institutions that now govern America did so specifically in reference to the Roman experience. It is very hard to understand what the founding generation did and said without a bare knowledge of what Rome was, who its major figures were, and a basic idea of how it slid from republic to dictatorship.  

3) The other notable thing about Liu’s essay is its acute focus on all things American. Americans ought to prioritize their own history and cultural heritage—it is in America they live and with Americans they all must deal with it. But what about the rest of the world? Do words like “Mencius,” “Ancien Regime,” or “Partition of India” have no place in civic literacy? These words and concepts don’t appear too much in American politics—but they appear in the politics of other places regularly. Americans have trouble seeing the world as others see it. Basic cultural literacy may be the best place to start changing that.


[1] Eric Liu, “How To Be An American,” Democracy Journal 37 (Summer 2015). 

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"Americans ought to prioritize their own history and cultural heritage—it is in America they live and with Americans they all must deal with it."

I would dispute this. Americans, like all other humans, live on the Earth, and they must deal all the time and in all ways with people in other parts of it. Every garment they buy, every item of food – it's all come ultimately from some interaction with other groups of people. I see no reason whatsoever to separate human history into distinct sections for distinct groups of people to learn about.

Americans should learn about the history of their hometowns, but they should, like everyone else, take an interest in everyone else's hometowns. 'Cultural literacy' isn't as important as simply being curious and taking an interest in the world at large.

Thank you very much for this post. Like A.J. West, it seems to me that studying any distant history can have a broadening effect. Anyone who tries to understand people who are just as capable and just as human as them and their peers but approach problems in completely different ways will gain something. So maybe the contents of the curriculum are less important than trying to make people see that Cicero and his peers (or the people of the Yangtze Delta under the Song, or their fellow countrymen a hundred years ago) were not 21st century Californians in funny clothing, but they were still human and still did the best they could with what they had.


I think you will like an earlier post of mine, Escaping the Echo Chamber of Modernity. I defend reading the classics for the exact reason you describe.

Nonetheless, there ought to be priorities in education — Americans only have so many years to study it in school, and limited time for history afterwords. Despite Al's protests to the contrary, certain aspects of history as simply more relevant to the average educated American than another parts. To take one example: the events of this last month have shown how the echoes of American civil war reverberate in the politics and culture of this country centuries later. I've heard people talking about confederate flags at the local small-town barbeque and have read remarks by the highest officers of the nation on the same topic. People have been killed by those waving that flag. And you couldn't understand any of it if you did not have a basic understanding of what the civil war was over, and what happened after it was completed. Knowledge of the U.S. civil war is simply more relevant to the average American than almost all of the rest of the world's history combined. In America it has a practical utility that say, knowledge about the Bantu expansion or Lapita pottery does not.