Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The United States of Amnesia: America's Historical Illiteracy

I've been wanting to bring up this topic for a long time but decided not to, being that this blog is dedicated primarily to the history of the American Revolution. After recent events, however, I have had a change of heart. While this posting may not have a lot to do with the American Revolution in particular, it does have a great deal to do with the study of history in general. I hope you will all take the time to read this posting because I believe it is an issue of supreme significance to us all.

A recent survey conducted by the Nation's Report Card 2001: U.S. History indicated that more than half of American high school seniors lack a "basic" understanding of American history ("basic" meaning questions like "What was the Holocaust," and, "Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?"). To make matters worse, a 2003 Roper Survey of Americans found that only 38% of Adults and 53% of students knew the meaning of the word Holocaust. Another 68% of Americans were unable to name at least three signers of the Constitution. In Diane Ravitch and Chester Finn's 1997 report, What Do Our 17-Year Olds Know?: A Report on the First National Assessment of History and Literature, it was found that the answer was little: One out of five students thought Watergate occurred before 1900 and only one-third could place the Civil War within the correct half-century (click here for a link to these sources).

In an excellent piece written for the National Review, William J. Bennett points out the fact that current high school and college students are performing far worse in American history than in reading or math. Bennett continues his argument by alluding to the fact that funding for historical education is virtually non-existent, and that current historical resources are both outdated and biased:

Many of our history books are either too tendentious — disseminating a one-sided, politically correct view of the history of the greatest nation that ever existed; or, worse, they are boring — providing a watered down, anemic version of a people who have fought wars at home and abroad for the purposes of liberty and equality, conquered deadly diseases, and placed men on the moon...What a shame that great men and women like George Washington, Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, Jesse Owens, Martin Luther King Jr, and so many others should be consigned to brief mentions only, and then to the sighs of uninterested study. Their stories are just not told.

Historian David McCullough, who in recent years has become the most outspoken proponent for the advancement of historical education, has stated on numerous occasions that we are facing the prospect of national amnesia. “Amnesia of society is just as detrimental as amnesia for the individual. We are running a terrible risk. Our very freedom depends on education, and we are failing our children in not providing that education.” McCullough also adds that we cannot single out our youth exclusively, but that we should take note of the historical ignorance of the Adult population as well. Since the overwhelming majority of Americans obtain their historical knowledge from Hollywood, The History Channel, and other forms of pop culture, McCullough suggests that we are facing a crisis of national identity.

Skeptics within the education community insist that the study of history carries less importance in the modern world than do topics such as math, science and computers. In fact the Department of Education for the State of California has determined that the study of American history should emphasize more "relevant" issues. As a result, California is currently phasing out its American Revolution and Civil War curriculums, claiming that they are of less importance to the "modern" student. In fact, the overwhelming majority of high school students nationwide are required to take only 2 semesters of history in order to graduate. Since history is included in the larger genre of Social Studies, less emphasis is placed on its importance. At the college level, history classes and professors are but a small part of what most universities call, The Department of Humanities. As a result, most college student are able to breeze through their collegiate careers without ever being required to take a single course of history.

I find it both strange and hypocritical that the study of history has become a mere subcategory in the larger arenas of Social Studies and Humanities. After all, Math, Science, English, etc. are still esteemed as unique and separate fields of study. So why not history? Historian George Lipsitz sums up this historical crisis best when he writes:

The crisis in historical thinking is certainly real. The dislocations of the past two centuries, the propaganda apparatuses of totalitarian powers, disillusionment with the paradigms of the Enlightenment, and popular culture itself have all served to make the search for a precious and communicable past one of the most pressing problems of our time.
I for one find it amazing that Americans are so quick to profess their love, admiration and patriotism for this nation, yet remain ignorant of its history and development. In many ways, this phenomenon is similar to the professing Christian that knows little or nothing about his/her religion's doctrine. How can one profess loyalty or patriotism to a nation or cause if he/she knows nothing of its history? As Cicero stated so many years ago, "History is the witness that testifies to the passing of time; it illumines reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance in daily life and brings us tidings of cannot become a true citizen without first gaining an understanding of history."

In a series of seminars, historian David McCullough has stressed the "historical crisis" that this nation currently faces. His words are far better than mine, so I will conclude by attaching a few of McCullough's video clips. I hope you will enjoy.

Part 2:


Brian Tubbs said...

Great article, Brad! I agree with you 100%. It's an outrage and a national crisis that we are putting so little emphasis on the study of history. I agree with McCullough that we are suffering from collective amnesia.

I think two huge components of the problem are:

1) Materialism and Utilitarianism - People see no practical value in history in terms of getting ahead in life, making money, etc.

2) Postmodernism - Academia is increasingly calling into question the ABILITY to know about the past and objectively understand it. Everything is becoming relativized, and thus it's easier for them to dismiss history as not being worthy of as much attention as subjects such as science, math, etc.

Brad said...

You took the words right out of my mouth, Brian. I think those two factors you bring up pretty much hit the nail on the head. It is an outrage, actually, no it is NOT an outrage...I guess that is the problem...nobody is outraged!

Lori Stokes said...

This is a timely article, Brad, so thanks for posting it.

I think one of the big, yet hidden problems is that we are more and more *afraid* to teach our history. We don't want difficult situations in the classroom, with students asking about slavery and the Trail of Tears and Japanese internment camps. So often I've heard high school teachers say they simply cannot and/or will not get involved in these types of conversations with students. It's too risky. Some parent will be offended, and then there's trouble for the teacher and the school.

What I see is students getting "safe" American history: they learn about non-white heroes who stood up for the right. The most recent survey of high schoolers that asked them to name the 10 most important Americans came back with 8 of the 10 spaces filled by non-white Americans: Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Sacagawea, etc.

These people are great Americans. There's no doubt about it. But to have that list without a single Founder on it? Well, Washington and Jefferson owned slaves, so they can't be great Americans. No Lincoln? Well, again you'd have to talk about slavery, and that is off the table.

We teach a careful history that only involves clear-cut heroes. Anything else is incendiary. But avoiding those difficult conversations is just what makes history so boring for students! They get no sense of why our country was founded, what drove its people and leaders, and where we are now. They just get heroes--and cleaned-up versions of those heroes to boot.

If we were willing to engage our real history--and introduce it to students--maybe that history wouldn't seem so irrelevant.

Brad said...

I think you bring up some excellent points, Lori. First off, you are absolutely right when you mention the fact that a number of teachers throughout the nation are afraid to bring up certain topics of American history. I believe that this is the result of:

1.) Political pressures that emphasize certain curriculums over others (on both the left and the right)

2.) A postmodern society that has literally replaced the rationality and scholastic curiosity of the Enlightenment with a culture of nationalistic extremism, which, unfortunately does not promote much critical thinking.

3.) A sincere lack of interest, due to an increasingly selfish culture that breeds a doctrine of narcissism and self-fulfillment. It's hard to tell people to read the works of Plato, Cicero, our Founding Fathers, or anything else for that matter when they are being conditioned to glean all of their "historical" knowledge from Hollywood movies and the History Channel.

Lindsey Shuman said...

I'm glad that we are discussing this because it has been on my mind for a while.

Just the other night I was talking with a group of friends about this very issue. I voiced my opinion, which was pretty much what everyone has been commenting on this article. A few of my friends actually started to laugh and told me that most "history nerds" overplay the importance of their study. I was shocked to hear this, so I mentioned to them this quote:

"Any and all scholarly pursuits, regardless of their importance, are irrevocably nullified if the student lacks a general knowledge of humanity's most essential subject: history."

Again, my friends began to roll their eyes until I told them that this was not MY quote. Instead it comes from none other than BENJAMIN FRANKLIN!

David Mabry said...

OK, now you did it. I have to throw in, as a teacher. Lori can be right to a certain degree. There is such a thing as a timid teacher, but tha is just not my style. I tell my students that I will teach them the truth, or at least as much as I understand it. Trail of Tears, slavery and all. I tell them that this is U.S. History according to Mr. Mabry and they can challenge anything I teach at any time, but they better have done some reading, research and be ready to defend their point of view. I can support everything that I teach, so I welcome any parent challenge. I will not stay away from any topic that helped shaped or nation. I want to show the students how history shapes their lives.
I dress in costume, jump up and down, make the students march using Baron von Stueben's drill manual, re-enact the Boston Massacre and much much more. I want to make history live for them. In fact, I portrayed Henry Clay today in my classes. The more meaningful I can make it, the more my students will learn. i can honestly say that I have met with a lot of success. Every year I try to incorporate more technology, podcasts, photostorys that both the students and I make. I teach anecdotally, history is his...story I write on the board the first day.
Brian and Brad have hit on it. I have only one thing to add..cultural plurality. Without the basic knowledge of American history andgovernment we are losing that which makes us Americans...the unique cultural identity that we all share. I ave read all of the reports that Brad had mentioned...I adore Diane Ravitch. In Texas, social studies defintely comes last as far as the core academics are concerned. The last test, the last to get resources or consideration and this has been partly due to the dangers of our success. Texas students consistently score highest on their social studies test than any other. While I do not consider their test scores the sole measure of my success, I am proud that they have learned so much in my class. I do not teach to the test, beacuse if I actually teach them, I will not have to worry about it, they will succeed.
Whew!!! Sorry about the length.

Brian Tubbs said...

Great Ben Franklin quote there, Lindsey. I'm embarrassed to say that I didn't know that one. So, thanks for providing it.

Steve said...

Kudos to you, David for not falling into the trap of "boring" or "safe" history. I think it is great to know that there are still teachers out there like you, who do not let the social stupidity of the masses interfere.

I am blown away by the complete lack of historical knowledge that permeates this nation. We are WOEFULLY bad at knowing our own roots. Case in point: my cousin teaches immigrants American history and he tells me that immigrants to this nation are scoring far better on the U.S. hostory exams than are CITIZENS BORN IN THIS NATION!!! There is no excuse or justification for this.

I am not a "doomsdayer" in any way, nor do I buy into the crappy conspiracy theories that exist, but I will say this: AMERICA'S GREATEST WEAKNESS IS IT'S LACK OF SELF-IDENTITY. You cannot know who you are unless you know where you came from.

Let's keep this discussion going. It is a good one!

Anonymous said...

This is good stuff. It is proof in my mind that America is and always will be a great nation, but that we have a CRAPPY culture.

Brian Tubbs said...

My proposed 3-point plan to solve the problem. (I like three point plans. :-) )...

1. Encourage more novels and movies that depict exciting events and interesting characters from American history. (This is why I'm excited about HBO's John Adams). History IS interesting, so it should be portrayed that way - just as David is doing in his classroom.

Why, for example, has there not been a BIG SCREEN movie about George Washington??! I mean, for crying out loud!

2. We must fight postmodern extremism! This battle must be waged primarily in academia and in the libraries and bookstores in America. To the extent that postmodernism has reversed some of the arrogance of modernism and/or challenged us to look critically at culture, language, and other factors in transmitting and possessing knowledge, it is a good thing. But postmodernism has run amok - especially at the university level. We need to be aware of this and push back.

3. Show our kids that history is both interesting (great job, David!) and beneficial to their development as not only citizens, but as individuals. The study of history will improve retention abilities and critical thinking skills. These things HELP young people succeed in life. If a kid wants to grow up and make $100k a year or more, then she needs to think critically. If another wants to be a multi-millionaire tycoon, then she or he needs to retain information well and exercise sound judgment. The study of history (classically speaking anyway) can help us in all those areas.

Not part of the 3-point plan per se, but PARENTS need to play a vital role in this. As David McCullough has said in several lectures....turn off the TV! And take the kids to a battlefield or a museum! Get some quality family time as you teach the next generation the accomplishments of and lessons learned by past generations.

Okay, getting off my soap box now.

Look what you started, Brad! :-)

David Mabry said...

Many schools are working to hook the kids into history, like Saturday academis, National History Day, I have started a history club. I hope to take the kids on a tour of the special collections at a local univeristy.
Getting the parents, good luck. Brian, is right, the parental interest is the key. I held a "History Night" at my school and set it up to cover historical topics and show the parents how the state tests the students. With two weeks of previous advertisement, I had two parents show up. There are over nine hundred students at my school.
Next year I plan to expand my history club and perhaps hold "Saturday Academies" or nights at my school. I could use suggestions for topics to bring in the parents. School nights will be best, I think I would have problems getting the school on a Saturday with the extra expense of light, air, security, etc.
Ok, enough rambling, but I consider every student that I inspire to read an extra history book or watch the History Channel, visit a museum, is a victory.
I will leave the fighting of post-modern extremism to the current grad students. I plan on re-entering a grad program either this Fall or Spring. Mmmm....history or education....a dilemma.