Johann N. Neem: Why We Should Teach National History in a Global Age

Roundup: Talking About History

Johann N. Neem is an associate professor of history at Western Washington University and the author of Creating a Nation of Joiners: Democracy and Civil Society in Early National Massachusetts (Harvard University Press, 2008). This article was adapted from a longer essay, "American History in a Global Age," which appeared in the February 2011 issue of History and Theory.

Americans face a unique challenge today in defining their identities. Globalizing markets have connected us with faraway peoples and places, allowing us to buy cheap goods manufactured in nations with limited labor and environmental protections. Globalization has also spurred heavy migration and a demand for freer international trade. Our identities may follow markets, reducing the centrality of the nation-state in our lives.

Is it a good thing for our identities to be globalized? I would argue no. Progressive politics, including the redistribution of wealth between the well-off and the less so, is predicated on a coherent and vibrant nationalism. Paradoxically, in an age of globalization, our schools must make Americans more aware of their connections to the world while reinvigorating the teaching of our national history.

History's power is its ability to shape our collective identity. By teaching national history, we help create nationals. All identities are premised on shared stories. To be a member of a community is to identify with its past, and to seek to sustain that community in the present is to improve it in the future. That is as true for nations as for religious, ethnic, and professional communities. As the political scientist Rogers Smith argues in Stories of Peoplehood (Cambridge University Press, 2003), national identities are based on the vitality of shared narratives that place us in the stream of history. Stories make us who we are....

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