“History does not tell us what to do,” Civil War scholar Eric Foner says, but it does help us understand how the world got this way, as long as you aren’t stuck playing the Great Men greatest hits in your studies. But that’s what most of us learn: a litany of good or important deeds done by familiar names that turns history into a constellation of memorized details instead of a reckoning. This pockmarked understanding of the past, and the efforts to render history into more than a sunny yet useless bit of impressionism, is the theme of Foner’s Battles for Freedom: The Use and Abuse of American History. The essays within were published in The Nation between 1977 and 2017 and often hit home the stickiness of the past. In a book review about public history and Confederate monuments, he asks, “Why, one wonders, has our understanding of history changed so rapidly, but its public presentation remained so static?”
Lewis H. Lapham talks with Eric Foner, author of Battles for Freedom: The Use and Abuse of American History.
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