Sunday, December 6, 2009

The United States of Amnesia: America's Historical Ignorance, Part I

In light of Tom Van Dyke's recent posting on the national survey conducted by the American Revolution Center (which revealed an astonishing lack of general knowledge of the American Revolution amongst the American populace), I thought this might be an appropriate way to continue the discussion on society's apparent apathy towards the study of history.

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 college students had a basic understanding of the history of the Holocaust. Another 68% of Americans were unable to name at least three signers of the Constitution, and only 32% of adult Americans possessed a "basic understanding" of American history in general. In addition, 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).

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 in virtually every generation of today's society.

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, while the requirements for math and science are usually double. 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:


King of Ireland said...

History class is reading class now. It almost has to be because none of these kids can read. Why? The teachers are so afraid that the kids are going to tell on them they let them sit and socialize the majority of the time.

I am about to leave the profession again. I want to help the kids but am weary of putting up with the whole "positive reinforcement" nonsense that says if a kid is acting up it must be something the parent or teacher did.

The principals are almost Nazi's now in their my way or the highway approach to "Reform" when the only reform that is needed is to throw all the collectivist social engineering non sense in the trash where it belongs.

King of Ireland said...

Individual rights has turned into radical individualism that is destroying this country. The issues we hit on on this blog are at the heart of what is either going to make us or break us as a nation. It ain't looking so good right now.

Brad Hart said...

I hear ya, King. I went back to school to become a teacher, but the simple experience of being a substitute made me change my mind. That's why I went back to being a cop. Perhaps I will make the plunge into the college arena at some point, but having a simple M.A. in history doesn't open that many doors either. I'd probably need the big, bad Ph.D. to do that (but I don't have the cash or desire to go that far). Maybe ad-junct teaching at a community college will be my long as it fits with a law enforcement schedule.

So what are you wanting to move on to now that you are bowing out of teaching?

King of Ireland said...

I have not thrown in the towel. My ultimate goal is to either go teach and coach in college or go to law school and become a developer. I am torn. I might be able to do all of that in some way but who knows.

Just to be practical I can get an almost free Masters in history if I stay teaching. Then I can move on to college or do the law thing. I can do real estate on the side for fun maybe. I may get fired at some point anyway. I am a disciplinarian and the current principle baby's the kids. She is on her way out I heard back to elementary. If she leaves I might stay because I like the new guy. I could work for him.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I am learning myself, these days, and thank you guys for giving me something to chew on...

I was just at a luncheon for our Honor's College today. One of the history profs, who is a personal friend, said that he asked the students who had watched President Obama's speech the night before. He said there were only several! And some didn't even know what the talk was to be about!

Current events, as well as history is "unimportant" and disconnected from their life, I guess..but, I have to admit that living in D.C. was what whet my thrist and love for America, on a more than superficial level.

I, of course had "loved" the country for its ideals, as my husband and I have been "committed to the military". But, experiencing and learning about America's history within the context of current events was an extremely fulfilling and challenging adventure. It was so stimulating!

My husband, too, found it so interesting...

Daniel said...

K of I,
If you have just tried it in one location, don't give up. This is a big country with many cultures. I am in a community where I think we are pretty supportive of our teachers -- altough resouces are limited. I think many small towns are similar.

King of Ireland said...

I have tried at more than one location over many years. I am going in tomorrow for the pay check and the goal of staying employed until I find something else. My principal took it out of me. To fit in with the rest all I have to do is work half as hard and let the kids do whatever they want. That is what she asked for without knowing it by insulting me and that is what she will get.

This is where most teacher that cared at one point get. I may change my mind and care again over time but I am not sure this time.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

You should act like a Christian concerning your teaching profession and go to the church of the parents and tell them all your concerns. Get the whole community behind you and don't allow these parents any room for error, to underline your point that they are the only ones that impact their children's lives, as you want to hold them accountable.

Be sure you don't go to the parent directly, as you need to maintain your position of "authority". And make sure that they know that the wife is unsubmissive, licetious, and undisciplines,the father doting, and the kids totally "out of control". The whole family is dysfunctional and immoral.

And to make things better, as you want to be "gracious", why not suggest a way to reconcile? Make the offer "good" by being gracious enough to include these "morons" into a "plan" you design. These people must learn to submit to your ideas, because, after all, you do know best.

I'm sure this way, you will make the parents change, and if not, the church can always bring in discipline measures, resitution to your reputation, and "correct" these "unruly parents".

I am sorry for the Sarcasm and I am truly sorry for your "plight". I agree that parents do need to be more involved in their children's lives. There are many stressors on the family these days. And I don't attempt to know the solution for teachers, principals or the communities concerned.

King of Ireland said...


I have no idea what you are talking about.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I'm sorry, as Tom said when he and Brad did similar to me....

Some Christians don't use their head when it comes to things like what you are experiencing with your students at school. They use scripture. So, I was just "parodying' off what that "would look like".