Don’t know much about history
Don’t know much biology
Don’t know much about a science book
Don’t know much about the French I took
But I do know that I love you
And I know that if you love me, too
What a wonderful world this would be
—Sam Cooke, “Wonderful World”
I was lucky in high school and college to have some great teachers. In history especially, instructors like Mike Elsken and Dr. Alexander Sydorenko made the past come alive for me, and I’m grateful for the knowledge they imparted.
Some people apparently weren’t lucky enough to have good teachers, or they just weren’t paying attention.
Eh, who needs history anyway? It’s not like you could learn not to repeat mistakes or anything …
If I listened to some people today, I would learn:
- Our founding documents included the phrase “In God we trust.” Sure, as long as those founding documents were written in the the 1860s when it was added to some coins during the Civil War, or the 1950s in the midst of the Red Scare when the phrase was added to paper currency.
- George Washington cut down a cherry tree when he was a child, telling his father, “I cannot tell a lie … I did cut it with my hatchet.” Because a parson who wanted to create an image of Washington as unimpeachably honest would never make something up, especially in order to profit.
- Bill Clinton did not carry his home state in the presidential elections of 1992 and 1996 (well, the person who came up with this one seemed to think the elections were in 1993 and 1997, so …). Someone, though, should probably let the Electoral College know since its map shows him winning Arkansas both times. Oh, and the media, all those election commissions, the people who voted for him …
Gen. Jack Pershing dipped bullets in a pig’s blood and killed Muslim terrorists in the Philippines shortly before World War I. Except according to historians, it most likely didn’t happen, no matter how much Donald Trump and others want us to believe it. There is a story in Pershing’s memoir about another commanding officer in the Philippines, Col. Frank West, having buried Muslim insurgents in the same grave with a dead pig, but it seems nothing thus far has convinced historians that the bullet anecdote actually occurred.
- Barack Obama (and sometimes Hillary Clinton) is responsible for starting the Iraq War. Never mind that he was an Illinois state senator at the time. That man is wily. But what can you expect from a man who also somehow managed to plant his birth announcement in a Honolulu paper in 1961 just in case some people in the future might think he wasn’t born in the U.S.? Sneaky!
- John Quincy Adams was one of the founding fathers. As long as you ignore that he was just a boy when his father, John Adams, signed the Declaration of Independence. He was a precocious tyke, wasn’t he?
- The Transcontinental Railroad was completed before the Civil War. That is, if the war didn’t happen till 1869 or later. Maybe it was another Transcontinental Railroad. Or another Civil War …
You might worry that, well, it’s just a sign that today’s kids aren’t learning anything about our history, and that could indeed be true. Except that all of the preceding were stated by adults (and that last one was from our current president, in case you didn’t click on the link).
In 2011, Newsweek asked 1,000 U.S. citizens to take the official citizenship test (you know, what naturalized citizens have to take before they can become citizens). It found that “29 percent couldn’t name the vice president. Seventy-three percent couldn’t correctly say why we fought the Cold War. Forty-four percent were unable to define the Bill of Rights. And 6 percent couldn’t even circle Independence Day on a calendar.”
In the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress Report Card, only 20 percent of fourth-graders and 12 percent of 12th-graders scored at or above “proficient” in history. In the 2014 assessment, 18 percent of eighth-graders were at or above “proficient.” The scores for civics knowledge in those years were only slightly better.
But what can we expect when we devalue history and civics education, we teach to tests, and we allow politics to determine curricula? If the adults don’t know this stuff, how can we expect kids to get it?
In a statement upon the release of the 2014 scores, Terry Mazany, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, said, “Geography, U.S. history and civics are core academic subjects that must be a priority. They represent knowledge and skills that are fundamental to a healthy democracy. The lack of knowledge on the part of America’s students is unacceptable, and the lack of growth must be addressed. As a country, we must do better.”
So what can we do? Heck if I know, but we might start with letting historians actually do their jobs (and no, David Barton is still not an historian). Committees deciding what history is acceptable to present to students is nuts. Whitewashing parts of history, especially for political purposes, serves only to take us further down the path of knowing nothing. Add to that the rampant confirmation bias and propensity by some factions to dismiss fact-checking (or any questioning of the party line at all), and you have a dangerous situation.
When I learned history (which wasn’t all that long ago), it was in chronological order, and we learned the good and the bad about our country and others, with no expectation that we were supposed to think a certain way. We were given the tools and taught to think for ourselves based on the information available.
But I guess thinking’s passé. It’s much easier to let someone with an agenda do that for you.