Don’t know much about history

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Don’t know much about history

Post by TexasBlue on Sun Jun 19, 2011 11:27 am

Don’t know much about history

Jeff Jacoby
Boston Globe
June 19, 2011


WHEN THE Department of Education last week released the results of the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress — “the Nation’s Report Card’’ — the bottom line was depressingly predictable: Not even a quarter of American students is proficient in US history, and the percentage declines as students grow older. Only 20 percent of 6th graders, 17 percent of 8th graders, and 12 percent of high school seniors demonstrate a solid grasp on their nation’s history. In fact, American kids are weaker in history than in any of the other subjects tested by the NAEP — math, reading, science, writing, civics, geography, and economics.

How weak are they? The test for fourth-graders asked why Abraham Lincoln was an important figure in US history, and a majority of the students didn’t know. Among eighth-graders, not even one-third could correctly identify an advantage that American patriots had over the British during the Revolutionary War. And when asked which of four countries — the Soviet Union, Japan, China, and Vietnam — was North Korea’s ally in fighting US troops during the Korean War, nearly 80 percent of 12th-graders selected the wrong answer.

Historically illiterate American kids typically grow up to be historically illiterate American adults. And Americans’ ignorance of history is a familiar tale.

When it administered the official US citizenship test to 1,000 Americans earlier this year, Newsweek discovered that 33 percent of respondents didn’t know when the Declaration of Independence was adopted, 65 percent couldn’t say what happened at the Constitutional Convention, and 80 percent had no idea who was president during World War I. In a survey of 14,000 college students in 2006, more than half couldn’t identify the century when the first American colony was founded at Jamestown, the reason NATO was organized, or which document says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’’ Numerous other surveys and studies confirm the gloomy truth: Americans don’t know much about history.

Somewhere in heaven, it must all make Harry Truman weep.

He never attended college and had no formal intellectual credentials, but Truman was an avid, lifelong student of history. As a boy he devoured “Plutarch’s Lives’’ and Charles Horne’s four-volume “Great Men and Famous Women,’’ developing an intimacy with history that would later become one of his greatest strengths. “When Truman talked of presidents past — Jackson, Polk, Lincoln — it was as if he had known them personally,’’ the historian David McCullough writes in his landmark biography of the 33rd president.

Truman may have been exaggerating in 1947 when he told Clark Clifford and other White House aides that he would rather have been a history teacher than president. Yet imagine how different the NAEP history scores would be if more teachers and schools in America today routinely imparted to their students a Trumanesque love and enthusiasm for learning about the past.

Alas, when it comes to history, as Massachusetts educator Will Fitzhugh observes, the American educational system imparts a very different message.

While the most promising high school athletes in this country are publicly acclaimed and profiled in the press and recruited by college coaches and offered lucrative scholarships, there is no comparable lauding of outstanding high school history students. A former public school history teacher, Fitzhugh is the publisher of The Concord Review, a journal he began in 1987 to showcase the writing of just such exceptional student scholars. The review has printed 924 high-caliber research papers by teenagers from 44 states and 39 nations, The New York Times reported in January, winning a few “influential admirers’’ along the way.

But this celebration of what Fitzhugh calls “varsity academics’’ amounts to just drops of excellence in the vast sea of mediocrity that is American history education. Another kind of excellence is represented by the National History Club that Fitzhugh launched in 2002 to encourage middle and high school students to “read, write, discuss, and enjoy history’’ outside the classroom. Beginning with a single chapter in Memphis, the club has grown into an independent national organization, with chapters in 43 states and more than 12,000 student members involved in a rich array of history-related activities.

“Our goal,’’ says Robert Nasson, the club’s young executive director, “is to create kids who are life-long students of history.’’ He and Fitzhugh have exactly the right idea. But as the latest NAEP results make dismally clear, they are swimming against the tide.
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Re: Don’t know much about history

Post by kronos on Sun Jun 19, 2011 1:18 pm

Not even a quarter of American students is proficient in US history, and the percentage declines as students grow older.

By implication, these students are ignorant of history in general, not just of US history. Yet the author seems only concerned with their ignorance of US history, which is but a tiny sliver of world history. All the examples he gives of history the students should know about, but don't, are US history, or at least history that directly involves the US.

I have the same frustration with the supposedly "educational" channel where I live, OPB, which presents the viewer with no shortage of historical documentaries--but not a single one that looks beyond the comfy confines of America's couple odd centuries. Very little even about colonial times, and nothing whatsoever about the middle ages, or antiquity.

I find this to be a parochial and insular attitude.

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Re: Don’t know much about history

Post by dblboggie on Sun Jun 19, 2011 5:45 pm

I would not be too sure that K-12 students don't know about or aren't taught about world history. I know that high school students are taught about world history, having gained some grounding in American and local state histories in grade school. How much world history is taught would naturally vary from school district to school district. But if schools are doing as lousy a job of teaching world history as they are in American history then it matters little how much world history is on the curriculum.
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Re: Don’t know much about history

Post by BubbleBliss on Sun Jun 19, 2011 5:47 pm


In my high school, World History still had a large American focus. Most of World History was about WWI & WWII plus a little bit about the Renaissance. Nothing about Rome or Greece or the Middle Ages.
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Re: Don’t know much about history

Post by The_Amber_Spyglass on Sun Jun 19, 2011 5:51 pm

Over here we have a similar problem but there is too much focus on world history, or there was when I was at school. I could have given you every detail about The Russian Revolution but ask me and my classmates why Magna Carta was so important or the reason that Charles I was decapitated I wouldn't have had a clue. It was better at A-Level; the subject was split into two. On one side Renaissance and Reformation and on the other British Social Reform of the 18th century covering the abolition of the rotten boroughs, the cholera epidemic and the corn laws.

I think it is important that school kids get a good grounding in both their own national history and in world history.
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Re: Don’t know much about history

Post by dblboggie on Sun Jun 19, 2011 6:13 pm

I agree, I think a solid grounding in both world and national history are important for students. What would be even better is history teachers actually making the subjects interesting and relevant. I hated history in grade and high school. The teachers, even back then, were as dull and boring as the textbooks they used and focused mostly on the rote memorization of key events and dates with no context given to these whatsoever. This was in stark contrast to the early American history class I recently completed in college.

Truth be told, I didn't really get interested in history until I began working on the Hill. I've been consuming history books ever since both world and American. I find world history much more fascinating, especially ancient history.
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Re: Don’t know much about history

Post by The_Amber_Spyglass on Mon Jun 20, 2011 7:51 am

What would be even better is history teachers actually making the subjects interesting and relevant.
Yes, this seems to be a common problem and has been for a long time. They always seem so concerned with dates and events and drumming them in like a list to be memorised. There is generally no background or explanation for why they were so important then or now. I am especially concerned that so little focus is placed on the Anglo-Saxon and Viking period here.

This was in stark contrast to the early American history class I recently completed in college.
Though I agree and sympathise that school-level history is lacxking context, I would always urge caution about how much is necessary. The bare minimum? Then we'll be repeating the same mistakes we're currently making. 'Tell them everything' is impractical too due to time constraints and the lack of ability to absorb so much information and render it coherent in their minds.

Personally, I favour history classes to focus on turning points and their importance to history. It is not important that Henry VIII had six wives or that he had a ginger beard but it is important that he forged his own church and dissolved the monasteries. When we studied the Spanish Armada, we never had it explained why the Spanish wanted to invade. We were just taught that due to a mix of naval genius and the elements in our favour, Elizabeth I kept her throne.

When I think about that I studied The Russian Revolution for my GCSE in such depth yet there was never any context because chronoligically the course ended just as Hitler was coming to power, I have to wonder why. It was never tied in to the end of European imperialism, nor was it given the context of the impending Cold War.
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Re: Don’t know much about history

Post by TexasBlue on Mon Jun 20, 2011 4:16 pm

My big gripe is how little is placed on US history (events, etc). Once that's out of the way, then world history should definitely be next. Of course, my view is of an American viewpoint.


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“I’m not in favor of fairness. I’m in favor of freedom, and freedom is not fairness. Fairness means somebody has to decide what’s fair.” - Milton Friedman
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Re: Don’t know much about history

Post by i_luv_miley on Mon Jun 20, 2011 5:10 pm

The older I've gotten the more I've found myself wanting to know more about both US and World History - and in no particular order of importance. I say that, because, at least from my American perspective, I'm aware that in school I was fed whatever they wanted to feed me, which was okay for its purpose. I also know it was incomplete. I realize that we'd not only better know something about our own history, but about everyone's else's too. Only then can we (whoever we are) actually begin to put things into its proper (overall) perspective. And that is something I think is lacking today.
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Re: Don’t know much about history

Post by The_Amber_Spyglass on Mon Jun 20, 2011 5:18 pm

No, you raise a fair point. Even if you personally found medieval history fascinating, in the grand scheme of things much of it will not be relevant to you or to world history in general even those events are highly important in the relevant countries in which those events took place.

The American Civil War isn't relevant here because it had little (if any) impact on us even though it was one of the most important events in your history. Similarly, the English Civil War isn't relevant to you but to us it is one of the great turning points in England's history. The Black Death is irrelevant to you but in Europe it ended the feudal system. I could go on but I guess you get the picture.

I guess what I am trying to say is that when teaching history, there are events that are important nationally and then there are events that are important on a global scale. We need to find that balance.
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Re: Don’t know much about history

Post by BubbleBliss on Mon Jun 20, 2011 5:37 pm


What I also find disappointing is that in World History classes, one never learns about China, Japan, the Middle East or other parts of the world that also have fascinating histories. In the 2 World History classes I've taken, it was always only about Europe and the US, maybe a little Greece and Rome.
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Re: Don’t know much about history

Post by dblboggie on Mon Jun 20, 2011 6:41 pm

The_Amber_Spyglass wrote:
What would be even better is history teachers actually making the subjects interesting and relevant.
Yes, this seems to be a common problem and has been for a long time. They always seem so concerned with dates and events and drumming them in like a list to be memorised. There is generally no background or explanation for why they were so important then or now. I am especially concerned that so little focus is placed on the Anglo-Saxon and Viking period here.

Precisely. And I'm amazed that there would be a lack of focus on the Anglo-Saxon and Viking periods there. Those events ultimately lead to the formation of the English nation!

The_Amber_Spyglass wrote:
This was in stark contrast to the early American history class I recently completed in college.
Though I agree and sympathise that school-level history is lacxking context, I would always urge caution about how much is necessary. The bare minimum? Then we'll be repeating the same mistakes we're currently making. 'Tell them everything' is impractical too due to time constraints and the lack of ability to absorb so much information and render it coherent in their minds.

Personally, I favour history classes to focus on turning points and their importance to history. It is not important that Henry VIII had six wives or that he had a ginger beard but it is important that he forged his own church and dissolved the monasteries. When we studied the Spanish Armada, we never had it explained why the Spanish wanted to invade. We were just taught that due to a mix of naval genius and the elements in our favour, Elizabeth I kept her throne.

When I think about that I studied The Russian Revolution for my GCSE in such depth yet there was never any context because chronoligically the course ended just as Hitler was coming to power, I have to wonder why. It was never tied in to the end of European imperialism, nor was it given the context of the impending Cold War.

Exactly! One of the reasons I find reading Will Durant's "The Story of Civilization" despite the fact that it is clearly a dated body of work is because of the context he delivers to significant events. He also frequently explains how these events and persons impacted future events making them relevant to this day. I have gotten a broader and more complete understanding of world history and how it has shaped our world today from reading this body of work than I've gotten from all the other books on history I've read to date.

In fact, it helped me significantly in my early American history class as the volume I was on was the one covering the Reformation - and event that helped hasten and influence the colonization of the American continent.
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Re: Don’t know much about history

Post by i_luv_miley on Mon Jun 20, 2011 8:32 pm

The_Amber_Spyglass wrote:I guess what I am trying to say is that when teaching history, there are events that are important nationally and then there are events that are important on a global scale. We need to find that balance.
That was my point exactly! Things will happen, no matter where, that will end up affecting other places (i.e. countries). Without a decent knowledge (i.e. historical, political, etc) of those places affected, one won't get the full story of what happened and how things (in those places) were affected.

And I don't think that's being done anymore in education. Everything is too one-sided to one country or another, depending on which country is "giving" the information.
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Re: Don’t know much about history

Post by The_Amber_Spyglass on Tue Jun 21, 2011 4:34 pm

dblboggie wrote:
The_Amber_Spyglass wrote:
What would be even better is history teachers actually making the subjects interesting and relevant.
Yes, this seems to be a common problem and has been for a long time. They always seem so concerned with dates and events and drumming them in like a list to be memorised. There is generally no background or explanation for why they were so important then or now. I am especially concerned that so little focus is placed on the Anglo-Saxon and Viking period here.

Precisely. And I'm amazed that there would be a lack of focus on the Anglo-Saxon and Viking periods there. Those events ultimately lead to the formation of the English nation!
Seriously... the quantity of people who think that William the Conqueror was French mad
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Re: Don’t know much about history

Post by The_Amber_Spyglass on Tue Jun 21, 2011 4:35 pm

BubbleBliss wrote:
What I also find disappointing is that in World History classes, one never learns about China, Japan, the Middle East or other parts of the world that also have fascinating histories. In the 2 World History classes I've taken, it was always only about Europe and the US, maybe a little Greece and Rome.
I quite agree. Even in Medieval History Genghis Khan is largely ignored when he invaded Eastern Europe.
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