When considering the political scene of the moment, it is difficult not to see how historical allegory plays an important role in the public spectacle known as the Tea Party movement. From the name itself, an acronym (Taxed Enough Already) that fuses current concerns to a patriotic historical moment, to the oral and written references by some of its members to Stalin and Hitler, the Tea Party appears to be steeped (sorry) in history. However, one has only to listen to a minute of ranting to know that what we really are talking about is either a deliberate misuse or a sad misunderstanding of history.
Misuse implies two things: first, that the Partiers themselves know that they are attempting to mislead, and second, that the rest of us share an understanding of what accurate history looks like. Would that this were true. Unfortunately, there is little indication that the new revolutionaries possess more than a rudimentary knowledge of American or world history, and there is even less reason to think that the wider public is any different. Such ignorance allows terms like communism, socialism, and fascism to be used interchangeably by riled-up protesters while much of the public, and, not incidentally, the media, nods with a fuzzy understanding of the negative connotations those words are supposed to convey (of course some on the left are just as guilty of too-liberally applying the “fascist” label to any policy of which they do not approve). It also allows the Tea Partiers to believe that their situation – being taxed with representation – somehow warrants use of "Don’t Tread On Me" flags and links their dissatisfaction with a popularly elected president to that of colonists chafing under monarchical rule.
While the specifics of the moment (particularly, it seems, the fact of the Obama presidency) account for some of the radical resentment, the intensity of feeling among the opposition these days seems built upon a total lack of historical perspective. Would someone who really understood the horrors of Stalin’s purges still believe that President Obama sought to emulate the Soviet leader? Or, a drier example, could you speak of a sudden government "takeover" of health care, replete with death panels, if you knew of the long and gradual approach to building the modern American welfare state? The problem, of course, is that many Americans have at best a shaky hold on the relevant historical facts and are therefore credulous when presented with distortions and fabrications. Even after college graduation, too many students lack understanding of key historical developments. And that’s just college students – let’s not forget the majority of Americans who last studied history in their high school years, perhaps in a state like Texas, where Thomas Jefferson was just erased from the past because he is now considered too radical and the word "capitalism" has been replaced by "free enterprise" to help smooth out its rough edges.
It is important to realize that ignorance about history allows falsehoods and distortions to be presented as facts, but it is also significant that Tea Partiers look to history to legitimize their endeavors. In other words, history is still seen as authoritative; the problem is that the authority is being abused. Such abuse can succeed only when the public’s collective historical memory has been allowed to atrophy.
In addition to a vague (at best) recollection of the pertinent facts, Tea Partier warnings of cataclysm are taken seriously because the skill of thinking historically has not been emphasized in high school and college curriculums. Teaching students to understand that things change over time because of particular actions taken or not taken and that context matters, also referred to as "critical thinking," gives them some perspective and helps them to take the long view that can illuminate the emptiness of sky-is-falling scare tactics. The politics of our moment, focused solely on what's happening this minute and what it means for the next election (no matter how far off), cry out for a skeptical appreciation by an electorate that unfortunately does not know how to think historically.
In recent years, conservative groups like the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni have been the loudest critics of the low status of history in colleges in the United States. They are especially upset with the lack of American history requirements at elite universities. But this should not be solely a conservative issue, nor can it be one that professional historians ignore. As the Tea Party movement is demonstrating, there are direct political consequences if the public is unable to perceive when history is used to mislead and confuse people.
Unfortunately, as budgets are being slashed at colleges and universities nationwide, history is seen by many as impractical and unimportant. Courses that focus on “career-building” and “real-world skills” are prioritized while history departments are unable to replace retiring faculty. One reason for this is that the case for history has not been made effectively. As ACTA has reported, none of the top 50 universities requires its students to take U.S. history – and 10 require no history course at all. Some students may take a history course that fulfills a broader core requirement, but many do not. And too often these core courses are deficient in teaching historical practice. Historians, whether just entering the field or preparing to retire, have an obligation as people with special knowledge of history's significance to make the case for a greater commitment to the discipline – to students, campus administrators, legislators, and the public. Indeed, anyone concerned about education who does not want to see our contemporary political discourse sink lower should be actively interested in promoting history education.
This is an uphill battle. There is no easy-to-measure market value for teaching history, no space race to gin up patriotic sentiment, no simplistic explanation to combat the perception that studying the subject offers no reward. Yet as the Tea Party "movement" has made apparent, history continues to float in the air of our political discourse, its authority ripe for sucking into every imaginable debate. There will always be divergent interpretations of the past and disagreements about what facts to emphasize, and individual schools and teachers will construct their courses as they see fit. But most of all, we must redouble our efforts to foster historical thinking. Teaching students how historians find and use evidence to construct their arguments develops the critical skills necessary for sorting through the various and often outlandish claims available 24 hours a day on cable TV and the Internet. As long as people reference past events while staking out their positions in the present – and that is unlikely to change – a functioning democracy demands a citizenry capable of spotting historical fantasy and hyperbolic misapplication of historical precedent.
Erik Christiansen teaches history at the University of Rhode Island and at Roger Williams University. Jeremy Sullivan is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Maryland at College Park.