On Wednesday, July 17, 2019, Hillsdale College in D.C. hosted a presentation by Dr. Wilfred M. McClay, Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma, about his new American history textbook, Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story.
“The last thing we need, I think we all agree, is another history book. What we do need, what we’ve long needed is a clear and compelling narrative of the American story. An honest account that is also compelling and inspiring for students... And I think we have one,” said Associate Vice President and Dean of Educational Programs for Hillsdale College Dr. Matthew Spalding in his introductory remarks.
Land of Hope is not a typical textbook. It was not published by a textbook publisher, but by Encounter Books. Dr. McClay was given the freedom to tell the American story from his own perspective. The book has 22 chapters and traverses through American history, beginning with European exploration and ending with the most recent elections.
Dr. McClay’s goal in writing the book was to tell a compelling story for young people that would ignite their imaginations and demonstrate that history is a moral enterprise. He decided to write his book when he realized there was no American history textbook he could recommend.
In the book’s introduction Dr. McClay explains why it’s important to teach history through narrative:
“We need stories to speak to the fullness of our humanity and help us orient ourselves in the world. The impulse to write history and organize our world around stories is intrinsic to us as human beings. We are at our core, remembering and story-making creatures, and stories are one of the chief ways we find meaning in the flow of events.”
The author read several passages from his book about the Civil War. One passage painted a different picture of Abraham Lincoln than most are used to.
“We forget, or are unaware of, the depth and breadth of Lincoln’s unpopularity during his entire time in office. Few great leaders have been more comprehensively disdained or loathed…Lincoln’s own associates thought him a ‘simple Susan, a baboon, an aimless punster, a smutty joker.”
Dr. McClay told the audience that real events don’t play out like they do in movies, and that history doesn’t have background music, and that even great leaders are left wondering if their critics were right.
When an attendee asked about the trend of digitizing textbooks, Dr. McClay admitted that digitization is a mixed bag. He had previously explained that one of the biggest textbook publishers was putting all of their textbooks on the internet so they could be continually updated. Dr. McClay said this was the equivalent of writing on “digital sand.”
McClay suggested that something important is lost when the author and publisher aren’t committed to the idea that the text is permanent. He said, “[When] you have something like cellular biology, where you have lots and lots of discoveries going on all the time- I can see the merit of having an online kind of reference source there. [However], American history is not really changing in its broad outlines from day to day.”
The audience at Hillsdale seemed to agree that McClay’s book was worth reading. Rebekah Molloy, a Hillsdale alum and a current graduate student at Virginia Tech’s School of Public and International Affairs said,
“I appreciated Dr. McClay’s emphasis on the mythical and aspirational aspects of history in which the past is organized into a meaningful narrative. Especially in today’s “now” centric world, his comments came as a much needed reminder that, as he said, we study the past because ‘their thoughts are the grandfathers of our thoughts.’ [His] talk not only made me want to buy a copy of his book- it also made me want to go back and study history.”
Mason Aberle, a current Hillsdale student, said “Dr. McClay's book Land of Hope is so significant, because without a proper view of the past we are left without a standard of action to guide us forward. Our torches must be lit to show us the way on, and Dr. McClay demonstrates that the kindling for these lights is a diligent study of our past.”
You can purchase Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story here.
If you missed it, you can watch the event here.