Unseasonable Reflections on Learing and Teaching American History
Bill Long 7/24/06
You don't have to go very far in your reading before you run into headlines which scream about our national "historical amnesia." Academics and education spokespeople ritually wring their hands when results of studies shows the "appalling" or "startling" (you probably could consult Roget's and come up with a series of adjectives synonymous with these which you would then find in these or related articles) ignorance that high school or college students have of American history. The thesis of this and the next essay is that not only are these studies worthless, but the attempt to formalize historical standards (which is what every state does) is largely a waste of time. In fact, as I will subsequently argue, historical knowledge is only valuable when you realize what you don't know rather than what you know.
In 2000 the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) issued what was called at the time a "groundbreaking" report that revealed an "alarming" (no doubt, Roget's had been consulted) ignorance of Amercian history among college seniors in the nation's most elite colleges. Let me give you an example of the historical ignorance that the survey drafters found so alarming.
Question 1. What was the source of the following phrase: "Government of the people, by the people, for the people"?
a. The speech "I Have a Dream"
b. Declaration of Independence
c. U.S. Constitution
d. Gettsyburg Address
Only 22% got this correct. The answer, of course, is d. These words were the start of Lincoln's last sentence of the Address. Let me give you two others.
Question 5. Who was the president of the United States at the beginning of the Korean War?
a. John F. Kennedy
b. Franklin D. Roosevelt
c. Dwight Eisenhower
d. Harry Truman
Only 35% of respondents answered correctly: Harry Truman. Then, the makers of the test inserted the following question.
Question 8. Are Beavis and Butthead
a. A radio show
b. Television cartoon characters
c. A musical group
d. Fictional characters
How many do you think got this one right? Yep, 99%.
You get the picture. Historians and other "experts" then begin the wringing of hands, the appearance on talk shows, the writing of editorials in papers, speaking of the "deplorable" (my goodness, I should have gone into the business of coming up with synonyms, don't you think?) lack of historical knowledge. Of course, anyone with half a brain sees what is coming. Loads of money, federal and other, will be funneled to these same historians and "experts" so that they can go to conferences, work about 3 hours a day, take long coffee and lunch breaks, visit places on someone else's dollar which they wouldn't ordinarily have done and generally give new meaning to the concept of junket. And, in the process, they will come up with some "standards" that should capture what students should know about American history.
These same people then become consultants for state departments of education which have their own mini-junkets as teachers and others are roped in for days-long "training" to come up with "state standards" for American history for the various states. These standards are then put before legislators who, after making speeches condemning the alarming ignorance of history of our students, pass them. Well, take that back. Often these standards never really reach a vote in a state legislature but are probably approved by the State Boards of Education. In any case, the result of the hand-wringing is that we have lots of new standards that are not only supposed to be put in place for the teaching of history but are the first step in the evaluation of whether and how much students actually know.
Thinking About Facts/Thinking About Standards
There is a considerable difference, however, between the "fact-based" "can you believe their ignorance?"-type of tests and the state standards. The first are given and reported on almost exclusively for their hand-wringing appeal. The second are taken seriously by many educators as part and parcel of an effective (whatever that might mean) secondary education. Both, in my mind, are fairly worthless. Let's go one at a time.
The fact-based approach to American history is a waste of time because most people's minds are constructed in two ways: (1) they are not fact driven, and (2) they only retain in their minds the knowledge that they need to get through their present crisis. That is, in the age of the Internet the really smart people are generally those who don't have the knowledge in their brain but know where to find it. Thus, if they wanted to know who was President at the time of the Korean War, all they have to do is type in Korean War on a Google search, realize that it began in 1950, and then type in "US Presidents" and discover that Truman was President then. It is so easy to find; it can be done in a matter of moments. Thus, why clutter your mind with facts when they can be found so easily?
Then, second, why fill your brain spaces with useless facts when you don't need to know them at work? Most people only need to know how to get to work, how to run their computers, how to follow the rules of their job, and how to interact with people. For about 95% of people, I would imagine (if not more), this suffices to live a fairly rich life. Why would they want to know the date of the Korean War or who was President then? Maybe they will need to know this, they think, if they are going to a brunch and a bunch of Korean War veterans were there, but who does this very often? So, my claim is that it is very logical for most Americans to have very little factual historical data at their fingertips. Indeed, I would claim that if we became a nation that had too many facts at our fingertips, workers would start getting fired, because they wouldn't be paying attention to what the job required. Therefore, historical ignorance is, actually, a rather good thing. Why clutter the mind with these facts?
On the other hand, it is fairly useful to know who Beavis and Butthead are. Many jokes at company watercoolers are made because of these characters. Indeed, knowing about B & B can help you fit "in" in your work environment, can help you, therefore, become a better "team player" and, ultimately, can help make your employer richer. Thus, the fact that everyone knows about B & B is actually a very good thing. It supports the thesis I argued above--that people learn only enough history to be "useful" to them as they live their lives.
I'm out of room here, but I need now to talk about state standards and then move to my own approach to history.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long