Todays Young People Will Make History, For Better or Worse
September 1, 2003
On the first day of every history course I teach, I begin with a discussion about how history is made. Generally, I ask the question “Who makes history?” The students invariably respond, “We do!” I always have to smile at their charming overconfidence. That is, of course, the right answer. History is made by the combined efforts of individuals (a few extraordinary and many, many ordinary individuals) working towards a common goal.
But making history is not as easy as it sounds. The responses to the challenges of the day are never self-evident or universally agreed upon. Our efforts to respond to the terrorist threat constitute a perfect example of a nation trying to come to grips with a vital issue. What should America do in Afghanistan now that al Qaeda seems to have been driven underground? When should the U.S. turn over control of Iraq to the Iraqis? Should the U.S. encourage more or less UN involvement? Will enhanced intelligence-gathering methods compromise civil rights? These are difficult questions, and history will not reveal the right and wrong answers to them for some time. Though youth readily intuit that individuals make history, they have had to make few tough choices in their own lives and have made none in their capacity as citizens.
Whereas youth in evaluating their role as historical actors are prone to overconfidence, adults are more likely to suffer from, to use a neologism, an alarming underconfidence. Men and women on the other side of thirty have not become the heroes and heroines they hoped to be in their teens. They have witnessed political events go the wrong way. They have seen their own fondest dreams dashed against the rocks and shoals of reality. In having children, not only their joys but their worries have increased. “How can I keep my child free from the dangers and the corruption of the world?” every concerned parent asks.
Whenever I feel helpless in the face of personal or political challenges, I return to the essay “The Role of the Individual in History” by the great Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield. Butterfield maintains that history is really “the sum of innumerable biographies.” That is, every person’s activities count for something in the great scheme of things. Wars are won or lost, companies fail or succeed, civilizations rise or decline as the result of countless individuals either doing or not doing their duties. Individuals do not act in isolation, however. Butterfield draws our attention to the importance of the “cell”:
“If it is the individual who matters most in the sense that he is the maker of history, the next important force and the strongest organizational unit in the world’s story would appear to be the thing which we call a ’cell’; for it is a remorseless self-multiplier; it is exceptionally difficult to destroy; it can preserve its intensity of local life while vast organizations quickly wither when they are weakened at the center; it can defy the power of governments; and it is the appropriate lever for prising open any status quo. Whether we take early Christianity or sixteenth-century Calvinism or the French revolutionary period or modern communism, this seems the appointed way by which a mere handful of people may open a new chapter in the history of civilization.”
We have heard much over the past couple of years about terrorist “cells”: small groups of malicious men crossing borders, hiding out, training in mayhem, and terrifying entire populations with their wicked acts. Yet the cell is not the monopoly of the malevolent. Good people can join together to promote good ends in the world. The Founding Fathers of this nation were just as much a cell as the Bolsheviks, the Nazis, or today’s purveyors of evil.
Cells for good cannot exist if people do not know what the good is. History is one subject that trains us in morality. Since there are clear examples of right and wrong throughout the human record (Hitler was bad; Churchill was good), history shows us what course we should pursue as a nation. Unfortunately, too many teachers have taken the very heart out of history by studying it in a way that assigns no blame for the bad things that happen in the world. If nothing else, the events of September 11th should remind us that there remain bad people in the world who must be defeated by good people. Our young history-makers need to know that above all.
Terrence Moore is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He studied history and political science at The University of Chicago and later earned a Ph.D. in history from The University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Moore served as a Lieutenant in the U. S. Marine Corps and was an assistant professor of history at Ashland University in Ohio. He is now Principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins, Colorado.