Academic Social Science and Washington History

William H. Young

With nary a metaphorical shot being fired, the Washington institutions or museums charged with presenting our nation’s past, ideals, and identity to the world—the National Museum of American History of the Smithsonian Institution and the National Archives—have been captured by our cultural elites and retrofitted to reflect the academic beliefs I summarized recently in Academic Social Science and Governance.

During my service in the first Bush administration in the early 1990s, my office overlooked the beautiful gardens of the first building (called “The Castle”) of America’s museum, the Smithsonian Institution, across Independence Avenue. One day I took a break and walked to the nearby National Museum of American History, where I went through the exhibit on the founding of America. To my amazement, not a single Founder was to be seen. The exhibit honored a Native American, an African American, and a woman and displayed their everyday life and its implements. There was no display of the U. S. Constitution. Rather, a small plaque declared:

When the American colonies sought to unite during their war with Britain, some leaders thought the [Iroquois] confederacy might serve as a model in some respects for the new American government.

Was what I had happened upon a bad enough, but relatively isolated, case of the Smithsonian’s reputed practice of showcasing multicultural propaganda and revisionist history?

Unfortunately, it was not. David Brooks (now a columnist for The New York Times) recounted the results of his 1999 tour of that museum in an article, “The National Museum of Multiculturalism,” in The Weekly Standard. Brooks reviewed the map of the museum’s exhibits, seeking displays about the Founders, the Progressive movement, the Great Depression, and numerous other important elements of our history. He reported that:

When you get to the map and scan it, you realize the truth about the National Museum of American History. It ignores or virtually ignores most of the major events of American history. This is a museum of multicultural grievance, which simply passes over any subject, individual, or idea, no matter how vital to American history, that does not have to do with the oppression of some ethnic outgroup or disfavored gender….

But the museum doesn’t distort history only in the way it allocates attention. There is also the kind of attention it pays. The curators of the American history museum are fixated on everyday life, on the conditions of the common people….The American Founders held certain ideas about inalienable rights, about America’s destiny. But since those ideas didn’t revolve about hoes and butter churns, they are neglected here. Hamilton and Jefferson had contrasting visions of what sort of country America should be, a debate that was not trivial, but because Hamilton and Jefferson were members of the elite, their dispute is beyond the pale….

This approach leaves individuals with almost no role in shaping history. The museum devotes lavish attention to ethnic communities…but personal greatness is simply excluded. So while the museum devotes huge space to African-American history, it makes little or no mention of…Martin Luther King, Jr….And if it ignores…[him], needless to say, the museum makes no effort to explain figures like Washington, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Truman, or Reagan.”[1]

In The Burden of Bad Ideas (2000), Manhattan Institute scholar and fellow Heather Mac Donald argues that what Brooks described was the result of an effort by curators from academia to erase the “racist belief system” of our national museum.

Anyone who still doubts that the madness currently possessing American universities matters to society at large should take a stroll through today’s Smithsonian. The Institution has been transformed by a wholesale embrace of the worst elements of America’s academic culture. The staples of cutting-edge academic “research”—smirking irony, cultural relativism, celebration of putative victims, facile attacks on science—are all thriving in America’s premiere museum and research complex, its showcase to itself and the world….

At the National Museum of American History, visitors encounter an America characterized by rigid class barriers, ever-growing economic inequality, predatory capitalists, and oppressed minorities….Instead of political history, the museum focuses on a congeries of identity groups….Take any point in time in the Smithsonian’s America, and you will find shocking inequalities that only get worse….

The Smithsonian’s assault on the American past doesn’t end with its obsessive harping on social and economic inequality. The museum has a far more specific agenda to pursue, and that is against whites. An exhibition on postcolonial society suggests that American history was formed of equal parts white, black, and Indian influence, and a good thing, too, because black and Indian cultures, according to the exhibit, were superior in every way. The first generation of American citizens were social-climbing, ruthless, obsessed with status and power, indifferent to equality, sexist, and, of course, viciously hypocritical in their embrace of slavery.[2]

With no agreement, or even protest, by our people or our governing elites, the core ideas and historical results of our founding and constitutional governance have been eliminated from the national consciousness, replaced by the revisionist dogma of contemporary academic social science. Mac Donald provides two ironic examples of that approach.

A show on the American industrial revolution from 1790 to 1860 subtly mocks Americans’ enthusiasm for the new industrial inventions....Nineteenth-century Americans belief in the efficacy of gifted individuals is another howler… A sophisticated social historian such as [curator Steve] Lubar understands that such concepts as “greatness” and even the “individual” are just political fictions designed to conceal oppressive power relations. Curator Lubar also singles out for implicit scorn the “widespread [nineteenth-century] assumption that work was good for people.” How repressive, we murmur sympathetically. Even worse, “houses of industry” helped to keep the poor busy and out of trouble.”…

Anyone looking for political history in the museum will be disappointed. It features nothing on the American Revolution or the constitutional conventions, nothing that embodies the ideals that animated the United States. America’s presidents? You’ll find their shadowy images sticking out from underneath the First Ladies’ portraits arrayed across a wall….[3]

I recently revisited the National Museum of American History. There is still no exhibit about the founding of America or the Constitution. Worse yet, the official “American History Timeline” presented by the museum at its web site makes no mention of the U. S. Constitution, which has vanished completely. To find the Constitution in Washington, one must go to the National Archives, but there too, our national heritage has now been corrupted and censored.

In December 2013, a new permanent exhibit titled “Records of Rights” was opened in the David M. Rubenstein Gallery of the National Archives, a government agency funded by Congress as well as private donations. A press release called the exhibit “a journey of exploring America’s continual efforts to perfect liberty and democracy.”[4] The exhibit introduces visitors to the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights— by regurgitating the revisionist history from academic social science displayed in the Smithsonian.

Edward Rothstein, cultural-critic-at-large for The New York Times, reviewed the gallery’s opening, first observing that after seeing murals of the bewigged founding fathers, a visitor might think that the exhibition would present the ideas of rights from our founding documents.

But then we turn a corner and discover that this promise is not to be fulfilled. Instead it is turned on its head. We are going to learn not how those ideas succeeded despite flaws, but how deeply, throughout our history, they have failed….

A good part of this should be included in any history of the United States, but here, presented in isolation, without context or deeper analysis, the effect is numbing. We aren’t being asked to think: We are being drilled, unrelentingly, in injustice….

This is a peculiar way for an institution that is a reflection of the government itself, to see the nature of its origins, the character of its achievements, and the promise of its ideas.[5]

Andrew Ferguson similarly described the new exhibit as a “bill of grievances” in “Archivally Correct: Another Washington institution diminished,” in The Weekly Standard.

“Records of Rights” is divided into three parts. Each part concerns an oppressed group. The first, “Bending Towards Justice,” depicts the oppression of African Americans. The next part, “Remembering the Ladies” depicts the oppression of women. The third, “Yearning to Breathe Free,” depicts the oppression of immigrants….

The exhibits readily acknowledge that the Founders and other powerful white men talked a good game. But the curators are here to make us wake up and smell the coffee, with the goal of ”perfecting democracy”…The curators take care that any glimmer of American idealism…is quickly snuffed out with a companion artifact….

After the bludgeoning administered by “Records of Rights,” the chance to see the Declaration and the Constitution seems less a patriotic mission than an afterthought. You enter through an unassuming side door. The little steps that used to raise you to eye level with the Declaration are gone, along with the imposing bronze showcase that set it above and apart. Now the founding documents are encased hip high, so you can look down on them.[6]

The tenets of academic social science about America and its governance are now fully dominant in the Washington institutions that present the official story of our history. In those institutions today, the Constitution has either disappeared or been disabled.

This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).


[1] David Brooks, “The National Museum of Multiculturalism,” The Weekly Standard, 7 June 1999.

[2] Heather Mac Donald, The Burden of Bad Ideas: How Modern Intellectuals Misshape Our Society (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000), 117–34.

[3] Mac Donald, Burden of Bad Ideas, 134, 128.

[4] Press Release, “National Archives to Open New David M. Rubenstein Gallery December 10, 2013,” www.archives.gov, 6 November 2013.

[5] Edward Rothstein, “A New Preamble Before the Big Show,” The New York Times, 16 December 2013.

[6] Andrew Ferguson, “Archivally Correct: Another Washington institution diminished,” The Weekly Standard, 11 August 2014.

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