The average American’s lack of history knowledge and insight has always boggled my mind. When I went back to college to get a degree in literature in the Rio Grande Valley, I had to take a summer course in World History. Five weeks. Because having spent five years on it in my Dutch high school didn’t count. It was five weeks of facts, and not even that many, because we also had to learn world geography. It was one of the most pathetic courses I took during those years, and I thought this was the reason people knew nothing about history here. Five weeks to teach world history to a group of students with the base knowledge of middle-schoolers.
It certainly is part of the problem, but not all of it. My daughter was in a progressive college prep school in Austin in sixth grade when she had a year of American history. It started with the first European colonists and ended at the end of the Civil War. I had to help her intensively with this class, so I knew exactly what she learned that year. Nothing.
The whole year was one long, brain-numbing series of what I consider to be the least important facts about American history. They did spend a lot of time on the Civil War and on slavery, which is more than many schools do, witness all the folks in the South who claim that the rebel flag has nothing to do with slavery. However, the vast majority of the time spent on the Civil War was focused on having to learn which battle took place when, how many soldiers died and who won it, and what seems like every single fricking document written by the government during that time.
Very little, if anything, about what led up to the Civil War, what the different viewpoints were, in broad strokes how the war progressed and how opinions changed or how folks got more entrenched, what had changed after the war, what didn’t, and most important of all, how the Civil War affects people still.
The material was so incredibly abstract and boring and irrelevant that all I have to do is mention the word ‘history” and my daughter practically has a hissy fit. She wants nothing to do with it ever again. And this at a school where the teachers were constantly thinking of ways to make their classes more interesting, finding new materials and coming up with meaningful homework projects. But the state has determined that this is what sixth-graders needed to learn, so it had to be covered.
Something else that always amazes me is how–mostly conservative–talk show hosts throw about terms like socialism, fascism and communism in a context that indicates they have no idea what these words actually mean. There is also the idea among many conservatives that colleges are full of damn liberals, which often goes along with a lot of anti-intellectualism.
America is rife with myths posing as history. The notion that the confederate flag has nothing to do with slavery is just one of them. So many people truly believe that America was founded as a Christian country; it seems that they get the pilgrims and the founding fathers confused. (I will get into the pilgrim story in a separate post about Thanksgiving.) Ronald Reagan is revered as one of the best presidents ever. I don’t think you can say of any president that he was all great. Certainly, some did more good than others, but all of them also did things that at best were pretty darn controversial. Ronald Reagan definitely did his share of the latter.
When I started working in libraries in this country (a children’s library and two school libraries) I noticed the huge number of biographies. They start at a first-grade reading level; books about George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Helen Keller, Thomas Edison, etc. Pretty much all the books dealing with history in these libraries were biographies. I’ve never understood that. Endless numbers of books with endless anecdotes about individuals’ childhoods, how great they were, how they overcame challenges, blah blah blah.
Not that these people didn’t do interesting stuff or that they didn’t overcome challenges, but they didn’t live in vacuums. How did they fit into the narrative of their times? That never becomes clear; biographies are arranged alphabetically. Kids end up getting this disjointed sense of the past, with snippets of knowledge here and there, and often they end up not even having a clear sense of a history timeline. Just ask the average high school graduate when World War Two took place. Or the Vietnam War. You’d be lucky if some of them could even place these events in the correct century. And ask them about George Washington and the most detailed account you’d get would probably be about a cherry tree he chopped down as a kid.
Why is history such a problem in schools? Why do kids graduate high school with so little knowledge of history, let alone any meaningful insight into causes and effects? I just finished reading James W. Loewen’s book Lies My Teacher Told Me and it explains everything in jaw-dropping detail. Stay tuned.