HOW DO AMERICANS UNDERSTAND THE PAST?

The American Historical Association (AHA) and Fairleigh Dickinson University (FDU) have released a national survey of Americans’ views on history. Funded by a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the project surveyed 1,816 people in the fall of 2020 using online probability panels. The first study of its kind in over 20 years to focus specifically on history, the survey revealed a shared commitment among Americans to the importance of historical understanding, along with some interesting differences in what people think history is. The report includes over 150 charts to help illustrate its results.

Here are some of the survey’s findings:

• 84% of respondents, including clear majorities across all demographic groups, feel that history education is as valuable as education in engineering and business.

• 66% of survey respondents think of history primarily as names, dates, and other facts, and 76% report that their high school history courses focused on this approach to history. This is different from the views of most professional historians, who view history as an explanation of experiences in the past.

• 73% of respondents say that it is easier to learn about the past when it is presented as entertainment. Respondents report learning history most often through documentaries, fictional television or films, or television news. However, museums, historic sites, and college professors, along with documentaries, are viewed as the most reliable sources of historical information.

• Respondents say the histories of men, politics, and government receive too much attention, while the histories of women and racial or ethnic minorities need more attention. Interestingly, LGBTQ history is seen as receiving both too much and too little attention from historians.

• 62% of respondents agree that knowledge of history should change over time.

• 77% of respondents, including clear majorities across all demographic groups, agree that it is acceptable to teach history about the harm done to others, even if it makes students uncomfortable.

“It’s heartening to learn that so many Americans think history education is important,” said AHA deputy director Dana Schaffer, one of the survey’s co-authors. “Contrary to some of today’s heated political discourse, there’s widespread agreement that children need to be taught both the good and the bad parts of our history, and that education that challenges us to think critically about our past makes us better informed as a society.”

“Americans really aren’t divided about what history to teach in our classrooms,” agreed FDU history professor Peter Burkholder, the other co-author of the survey. “That’s a fantasy manufactured for political purposes. The real divide is one of understanding. Historians have work to do in explaining to non-historians that facts, names, and dates are the raw material but not the sum total of what history is. Instead, it’s explaining how and why developments take place that more accurately defines the work of history.”

The full survey report is available on the AHA’s website at historians.org/history-culture-survey

Founded in 1884 and incorporated by Congress in 1889 for the promotion of historical studies, the American Historical Association provides leadership for the discipline and promotes the critical role of historical thinking in public life. The Association defends academic freedom, develops professional standards, supports innovative scholarship and teaching, and helps to sustain and enhance the work of historians. As the largest membership association of professional historians in the world (over 11,500 members), the AHA serves historians in a wide variety of professions and represents every historical era and geographical area.

Fairleigh Dickinson University is a center of academic excellence dedicated to the preparation of world citizens through global education. With four campuses spread across the United States, Canada, and England, the University strives to provide students with the multi-disciplinary, intercultural, and ethical understandings necessary to participate, lead, and prosper in the global marketplace of ideas, commerce, and culture.

The Waynedale News Staff
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