PROFESSIONAL American historiography has made steady advances in the breadth and sophistication with which it approaches certain aspects of the past, but those advances have come at the expense of public knowledge and shared historical consciousness. The story of America has been fractured into 1,000 pieces and burdened with so much ideological baggage that studying history actually alienates young Americans from the possibility of properly appreciating their past
Nearly 20 years ago, I wrote The Student's Guide to U.S. History for ISI Books. I was unable to include in its bibliography a high school or college level textbook on American history because there was not one suitable for recommendation--but criticism of the status quo is easy. What is harder is to create a better alternative. That was my aim in writing Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story.
Land of Hope swims against the prevailing currents in several ways, not the least of which is that it is a physical book. It is no coincidence that the giant textbook publisher Pearson has just announced its plans to go digital-first with its own massive array of textbooks, 1,500 titles in all, including those in history. Students eventually will be required to use--and institutions will be required to offer--the constantly updated texts, tethering students and schools exclusively to the publisher's digital platform. George Orwell, please call the Ministry of Truth.
In the early years of printing, printers often would display a truncated version of a Latin proverb: Liltera scripta manet, which means, "The written letter remains." The whole proverb reads: Vox audita perit littera scripta manet, which can be translated, "The heard voice perishes, but the written letter remains."
It contrasts fleeting orality and settied literacy. What does such a proverb mean today, when our civilization--in which the great majority of inhabitants, as Christians and Jews, have been People of the Book--is fast becoming a civilization inhabited by People of the Screen, people tied to the ever-changing, ever-fluid, ever-malleable presentation of the past made possible by the nature of digital technology?
Land of Hope also goes against the current by not dumbing down the reading level. It is written with an underlying conviction that we never should short the capacity of young Americans to read challenging books if they are interesting and well-wrought. Such books are far more likely to stoke the fire of their imaginations and convey to them the complexity and excitement of history--history not as an inert recitation of facts, but as a reflective task that takes us to the depths of what it means to be human.
Let me mention three distinctive themes that run through the book, themes that are hinted at in the book's title and are instructive about America's character.
First, there is the theme of America as a land--not just an idea, but also a people and a nation; a nation with a particular history, connected to a particular piece of real estate. To understand our nation, it is not enough to understand principles such as equality and liberty, as important as those are. We also have to understand how those principles were put into action, how they were developed, how they came to be forces in our national life.
American history, to be sure, is inseparable from America's principles and ideals, but the U.S. is not simply those things. It is a place with a venerable history created by men and women to whom our veneration is owed. Think of those who lie in Arlington National Cemetery and of countless others in the long history of such sacrifices made on behalf of our country. These things bind us to the land in visceral ways that go beyond ideas or principles.
Second is the theme of hope. The idea of America as a land of hope should not be misinterpreted as signifying a saccharine or sentimental view of America's past, but rather as taking into account history's spiritual dimension. We are creatures with free wills and aspirations, not merely tumbleweeds at the mercy of large historical forces. Hope is a quality of soul, something that is not quantifiable or explicable in strictly material terms. It is a consistent...