Blues Singer Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter, center, incarcerated in Louisiana's notorious Angola Prison Farm, 1934
As the United States wrestled with its past in 2020, there was a frequent refrain about what “wasn’t taught in history class.” In many places, history classes do have a long way to go. The textbook controversies are only the most visible indicators of our competing, and sometimes flawed, historical narratives. Yet it is also true that many Americans do not really take history classes. At the university level, history is not always required and there is an ongoing decline in college history majors. At the K-12 level, the triumph of social studies has meant that many students finish high school with only one year of history, and US history is not a requirement in all fifty states. Even perfect history curriculum will not transform how we see our shared past if we only rely on history classes. One key to change may be a deeper appreciation of the cultural artifacts of our past.
So much of what people “never knew” is hidden in plain sight. You can learn about convict leasing in the classroom, or in a book, but you can also learn about it through music. “Worried Man Blues,” first popularized by the Carter Family and made more famous by Woody Guthrie, shares the story of a worried man who “went across the river” and “laid down to sleep,” only to wake up with “shackles on my feet.” When he asks the judge “what’s gonna be my fine,” he learns it will be “twenty-one years on the Rocky Mountain line.” Woody Guthrie “rode the rails” and had troubles with the police and charges for vagrancy, but the lyrics of “Worried Man Blues” speak to the reality of convict leasing and the vagrancy charges which plagued black men in America. There are countless folk songs like it. An entire American history curriculum could be built around the Smithsonian Folkways recordings, which tell the good and bad stories of American experiences.
Smithsonian Folkways may not be at the top of Spotify streaming in 2021, but not for lack of availability. Many of the cultural products of the past persist and are easily accessible with library or internet access. We can still read Frederick Douglass’ autobiography, we can play the sheet music of the Civil War or use the Library of Congress website to browse photos of the soldiers, we can see the statues and paintings inspired by World War I, we can listen to Bob Hope radio shows from World War II, and we can watch a TV interview of Muhammad Ali. We can do all that while enjoying some of the same libations that were common at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. We have no shortage of cultural artifacts from the past.
Despite the abundance of sources, the cultural products of the past are unfamiliar to many Americans. This is amusingly shown by the NBA’s “Name the 90’s” game asking the incoming draft class to identify people and items from the past. Many top prospects in the 2020 class didn’t know what a beeper was, didn’t recognize Destiny’s Child, and really struggled with N’Sync. One player thought they might be the Beatles. This is no indictment of the rookies. They don’t need to know what a beeper is, even if there are things from the 90s they should know about. You can know the significant events of the 1930s without knowing the difference between the Big Apple and the Lindy Hop. But for many people those things can be entry points to understanding and can, in themselves, help foster interest in the past.
People will lovingly research the history of the things they care about. And while the audience for history classes is shrinking, there are already serious audiences for all kinds of older things. Antique furniture is not for everyone, but there is no shortage of people who appreciate it, and, as a result, learn about it. In the world of food, chefs and diners are embracing heritage grains and livestock. Jello molds may never return, but many cocktails of the past have already made a comeback. Where there is passion, people will pursue the past. A sneakerhead can tell you about the innovations in Air Jordans over the years and oftentimes quite a bit about the economic and cultural context of each shoe. Art and material culture can lead people to their own study of the past.
Art and material culture do not, on their own, tell an accurate and comprehensive narrative of the past. They do not consider sources and weigh evidence as history does, they cannot fully analyze their own context, and they often suppress complexity. Cultural goods can also mislead, accidentally or intentionally. Watching Gone With the Wind is not a helpful approach to understanding the Civil War and its issues. Inglorious Basterds is not a good guide to the events of World War II. But there are still things you can take away from reading Red Badge of Courage or watching The Great Dictator. In the summer of 2020, there were plenty of people who obviously would have benefited from watching Do the Right Thing at some prior point.
Despite their limitations, things like books, music, movies, and art can generate an interest in the past that academic endeavors, and longform opinion pieces, often do not. Experiences with cultural goods can be doors to broader exploration of context and pursuit of understanding. Knowing Leadbelly’s “Bourgeois Blues” is insufficient in itself for learning about the history of segregation and prejudice in America, but it may encourage someone in researching it.
Cultural goods can be used in schools to build a bridge to context, which is at the heart of historical understanding. The opportunities are almost limitless. High school students who read Grapes of Wrath can, and often do, learn about the historical context alongside character analysis. This type of integration can be done in almost any type of class. In history-specific classes, students can be exposed to more cultural goods and taught how to engage them well. This is not a choice between a content-based approach and one which centers “modes of thought” or the intellectual toolkit. Including more cultural history would enrich content and interpretive tools. The objective would not just be improved cultural literacy, but increased interest in the past, which could even help lead the way to better understanding of our shared cultural present.
Historians and school systems are expected to educate the public about our shared past, in this republic and on this planet. That responsibility exists despite the decline in the intentional study of history. Many of the people complaining about what “wasn’t taught in history class” not only did not take a history class very recently, but have no intention of taking one in the near future. Our approach to history in schools needs to not only enrich the limited history classes that most people take, but include bringing the past into other courses as appropriate. Cultural artifacts can help bridge the interest gap, in history and other classes, because people will investigate what interests them, even after class ends. No amount of classroom time can compensate for personal interest and personal pursuit of knowledge. But classroom time can be used to help connect those personal, cultural interests to the broader narrative of our shared past. Curriculum cannot substitute for curiosity, but it can help spark it.