The claim that “history is on our side” is one that has been debunked frequently, on this website and elsewhere. Yet it remains one of the most attractive and therefore persistent political myths of our day. And for radicals today, the idea that history is on their side has real plausibility because, to borrow a phrase from Winston Churchill, they intend to write it. Indeed, they are busily engaged in doing so.
The adoption of a new K-through-12 curriculum by the state of California is a case in point—and one that will no doubt prove to be nationally influential. Predictable in its content and emphases, it will provide religious conservatives with much about which to complain, not least the intrusion of lesbian and gay history into the classrooms of seven-year-olds. Yet we should not allow our imaginations to be gripped by the particular symptoms. The underlying reality is much more significant than the political tastes of this present age.
In a sense, this politicization of history is nothing new. If Clausewitz was right to see war as politics by other means, so history might be regarded as much the same. History is political, after all, because it involves identity. Remember: It was only about a decade ago that a failed push was made by conservatives to require the historical curriculum in schools to embody the putative values of Bush’s America. But the modern discipline is symptomatic of deeper problems in the metaphysics of society, and the changes in California merit more reflection than mere conservative consternation over the advent of LGBTQ history in elementary schools might indicate.
I learned history at Cambridge in the 1980s, at the feet of three brilliant teachers: a classical Marxist, an eclectic and sympathetic reader of both Max Weber and of the Annales school, and a trained sociologist who worked in the field of ancient Roman history. Yes, they offered competing narratives—yet there was one major difference between my education and what seems to be happening today. My teachers gave me different narratives about the human condition while still assuming that there was a common social humanity whose condition they were trying to explain. Thus, classroom discussion—constructive classroom discussion—was possible. Today, the “human condition” seems to be vanishing, because humanity itself seems to be on the verge of disappearing as a meaningful, foundational concept. It is being torn to shreds, turned into a chaotic mélange of discrete identities, each given ultimate significance by a mass of micronarratives. And that process is political in the most radical sense, because it calls into question the very basis of social organization: a common humanity that we all share.
Yuval Levin has written recently that the ethic of modern America is that of expressive individualism. Herein lies the problem: Taken absolutely, expressive individualism has no specific content and thus is subject to those identities which society considers authentic and to which it has thus granted legitimacy. But who decides which identities are authentic? Have you ever wondered why some minorities make it and others do not? Why, say, LGBTQers have pride of place on the California curriculum but foot fetishists, redheads, and people with allergies to latex do not? It is because the latter currently lack the cultural cachet that comes with the imprimatur of the entertainment industry, with the public sympathy arising from publicized marginalization and victimhood, and with the influence of organized lobby groups.
Thus, the California curriculum is a symptomatic codification of the aesthetic preferences of the current political culture. As such, it raises question far beyond whether schools rather than parents should teach children sexual morality. For years, the in-house question for historians has been whether history can survive as a discipline despite the proliferation of micro-narratives and the collapse of the possibility of grand theory. But now that academic question has more immediate real-world consequences: Can the nation state, or maybe society in general in the democratic form with which we are familiar, survive in anything like its current shape, when history—which is vital to the nation-state's legitimation—is fracturing into the myriad identities to which expressive individualism is ultimately vulnerable? When you add to this the other forces militating against social unity—immigration, globalization, etc.—the institutions and processes built on a deep sense of social unity and cohesion look profoundly vulnerable.
The action of the State of California may well be driven by the trendy politics of the day, but it represents a phenomenon of comprehensive social and political importance, not just the ascendancy of a particular political stance. The new curriculum represents the confusion that lies at the very heart of modern Western identity; it is far more significant than merely putting the name of Harvey Milk into the minds of the young. It is part of an ongoing and perhaps largely unwitting challenge to what it means to be human, and thus to the way the world is currently organized. But, as George Orwell once commented, “So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don't even know that fire is hot.” Indeed it is. And we may all be about to be burned.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.