Old News You Can Use: the denaturing of history

Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.

George Orwell, 1984

If there were a poll assessing the least favorite subject taught in high school, I would have to put my money on history or its more au courant euphemistic title, “social studies”. If history is not the clear cut winner, it would certainly be among the top three – my choice, mathematics, I suppose, would also be a strong contender.

The chronic complaint against history as a subject, you will hear from most Americans, is that it is “old news”. In our up-to-the-minute media saturated culture this is an undeniable fact. “That was soooo last year,” is perhaps a bit exaggerated, but hardly far from describing the willful amnesia of most young people today. More concerned with the staggering demands of the present tense, is it any wonder students find knowing that the Battle of Antietam took place on September 17, 1862 is of little or no material use in their lives? In fairness, I can think of no occasion where my knowing the date of the bloodiest day in U.S. history has put food on my table or helped to pay the electric bill. The meticulous chronology of momentous dates, more often than not, takes on the appearance of a sadistic ritual perpetrated by underpaid civil servants bent on making their charges suffer for the mistake in their career choice. While mathematics might be equally hated, it at least redeems its existence in the popular consciousness if for no other reason than it is reckoned to be necessary for the development of new and faster video games.

So what if Johnny and Susie, as the song says, “don’t know much about history”, is it really such a big deal? This is a common response from parents and by extension, school boards – who, in all probability, “don’t know much about history” themselves. (After all, only 49 percent of American adults could identify the Soviet Union as an ally in World War II.) Perhaps not, but it is a peculiar response indeed from a nation that, according to pollsters, places such a high emphasis on what is obliquely referred to as “traditional values”.

Or, to refer to my earlier supposition, would it not be within the purview of traditional values to know what exactly led 3,600 Americans to their deaths on the killing fields of Maryland in the autumn of 1862? Perhaps knowing the details of a battle that took place 143 years ago might give a sense of proportion to more recent events, most notably the horror of 9/11. Wouldn’t our children benefit from the knowledge that there have been other periods in our history when our future looked frightening. Had there been a clear cut victory for the Confederacy in a northern state, the British were prepared to intervene on their side and we might have had an entirely different country today. Most of the heavy casualties (over 23,000 both north and south) were sustained in a four hour period, nine times that of Omaha Beach in the second World War (of “Saving Private Ryan” fame, to give the obligatory pop culture citation). Regretably, few of our children know this, in fact, the majority of them are hardpressed to name what century the greatest danger our nation ever faced, the Civil War, took place.

In his 1998 essay, “Goodbye to all that: why Americans are not taught history”, Christopher Hitchens found some ghastly statistics:

According to the last ‘National Assessment of Educational Progress in U.S. History,’ which was undertaken in 1994, we can no longer call upon the traditional schoolmarm concept of history as a pageant, or even as one damn thing after another. In order to argue against this caricature, you would need to know at least the official reason why Pilgrims and Puritans first voyaged to America, which 59 percent of fourth graders were unable to do. You would certainly need to be able to name one of the original thirteen colonies, which was beyond the capacity of 68 percent of that grade. By the eighth grade, matters have got worse, as they are bound to do. Ninety percent of eighth graders could recount nothing of the debates at the Constitutional Convention. Even when prompted by mentions of Yalta, Lend-Lease, and Hiroshima, 59 percent of the eighth grade were unprepared to say which conflict these references brought to mind. In the twelfth grade, 53 percent looked blank when invited to specify “the goal that was most important in shaping United States foreign policy between 1945 and 1990.

There is little sign that things have improved. In fact, the national amnesia Hitchens writes about sheds light on a recent comment from Hodding Carter III:

These results are not only disturbing; they are dangerous…Ignorance about the basics of this free society is a danger to our nation’s future.

The results that Carter, president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, decries are the findings of the “Future of the First Amendment” research project conducted under the foundation’s auspices. The comprehensive study which surveyed over 112,000 students across the United States found some disturbing trends, exonerating Mr. Carter of the accusation that he was being chickenlittleish in his assessment. A few of these key findings include:

  • High School Students express little appreciation for the First Amendment. Nearly three-fourths say either they don’t know how they feel about it or take it for granted.
  • Students are less likely than adults to think that people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions and only fifty-one percent think newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories.
  • Students lack knowledge and understanding about key aspects of the First Amendment. Seventy-five percent incorrectly think that flag burning is illegal. Nearly half erroneously believe the government can restrict indecent material on the internet.
  • Administrators say student learning about the First Amendment is a priority, but not a high priority.

This leaves one wondering if our students are learning their civics lessons in 1984’s infamous Room 101. Suddenly, in this context, the garbled outpourings of Pop Tart Britney Spears on the Tucker Carlson show, “Honestly I think we should just trust our president in every decision he makes and should just support that, you know, and be faithful in what happens” no longer seems like those of a superfluous bimbo but rather the spokesperson of her generation.

If, as Hitchens contends, “the measure of an education is that you acquire some idea of the extent of your ignorance”; why is there not more of an outcry about the dismal performance of U.S. students? Perhaps his next statement could be part of the answer, “…it seems at least thinkable that today’s history students don’t quite know what subject they are not being taught.” It does not help that according to the National Center for Education Standards, fewer than 19 percent of high school and middle school social studies teachers had majored (or minored) in history.

Diane Ravitch’s The Language Police perhaps gives a clearer picture of why schools do such a bad of job firing the imaginations of young scholars in pursuit of history. Compared to the periodic conflagrations that erupt with the regularity of a herpes infection in biology’s evolution/creationism debate or the shamefaced prudery of a faux pas in the sex education class, the trench warfare of history teaching is particularly grinding. Partisans of every stripe weigh in with strident campaigning for their particular “narrative”; Native Americans, conservatives, feminists, Afrocentrists, and environmentalists – to name but a few – lunge and parry, form strange alliances and undo any systematic attempt to develop a comprehensive, or for that matter, coherent plan for teaching history.

Meanwhile, textbook publishers, whose job it is to sell books, and school administrators, whose job it is to, well, administrate, have firmly staked out the no-man’s land amid the shifting battle lines. Fearing political retribution, the ever-dreaded lawsuit, or still worse, no sales, there is a silent conspiracy of self-censorship and an ardent striving for superficiality. The reasoning, I suppose, is: is history really worth all of this? The result is bland pablum as nutritious as the sugarcoated breakfast cereals their increasing overweight customers hurriedly consume before climbing onto the school bus.

Ravitch, in a chapter appropriately entitled “History: The Endless Battle”, concisely elucidates the minefield that ill-prepared teachers (remember, the majority of history teachers have never studied history) step onto in our results-oriented and multiculturally sensitive classroom:

The states that ignore content are very prescriptive about the skills that students must learn. They call on students to do research, use technology, evaluate information, discover relationships, solve problems, work in teams, communicate, and exercise minutely specified “critical thinking skills.” But they leave blank the historical knowledge to which these skills should be applied.

With that said, is it any wonder that Hitchens finds his own children “could not tell Thomas Jefferson from Thomas the Tank Engine”?

Ravitch rails against the “multicultural steering committees” of the left and the “family values” types of the right and their overweening concern for the feelings of their constituancies:

Historians, like writers of fiction, must be able to write what they know, based on evidence and scholarship, without fear of the censor and without deference to political, religious, ethnic, or gender sensitivities.

The late Neil Postman argued that history is a more an idea than a subject, or rather a meta-subject and the “single most important idea for our youth to take with them into the future.” Postman argues that all subjects have a history or histories; science and its attending branches, literature, music, etc. Without the overarching idea of history, it is difficult indeed to benchmark progress (or the lack thereof) and we are left with a vacuous temporality inhibiting real problem-solving skills. Hitchens found this in his own teaching experience:

Since you can’t teach the American literary canon (indeed, you can’t even teach people to deconstruct it) without some reference to historical context, I began every class with an abbreviated introduction about the period in which the author was writing. I still have my notes and papers sent me by my students, asking why they had to get all the way to college before anyone anyone bothered to fill in this nagging blank.

Yes, the nagging blank. As if the fictional “memory hole” of Orwell’s dystopia had come to pass without any perspective as to the when or where of its happening. The conservative philosopher, George Santayana, addressed the danger of the lack of retentiveness in response to what Leon Edel, Henry James’s biographer, refered to as “America’s cult of impermanence”:

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stages of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted, it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in which instinct has learned nothing from experience.

If history is the “single most important idea for our youth to take with them into the future,” having only 51 percent of our young believing that newspapers have the right to publish stories without government approval, that future is looking increasingly bleak indeed.

©2005 Barney F. McClelland at As I Please

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