How Can We Ever Hope to Govern Ourselves If We Know Nothing of Our Past?





Rick Shenkman, the editor-in-chief of HNN, is the author of Just How Stupid Are We:  Facing the Truth About the American Voter(Basic Books, 2008).  He is the vice president of Vote iQ.

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Today what we have to fear is not fear itself, it is that ignorant students will grow up to become ignorant voters.  Risking a reputation as a johnny-one-note, I have spent the last several years drawing attention to the gross ignorance of voters, who profess to know what they are talking about but usually don't, as is evidenced by the dismal level of our political debates.  A people who knew something about politics presumably wouldn't fall for lies about Obama's birth, "death panels," and 9-11 conspiracies.  Alas, it appears we will once again, judging by the latest NAEP results, be witness to another generation of ignorant voters.  These low test scores in history are the canary in the coal mine of politics.  Don’t know that we fought Chinese troops in the Korean War?  Can’t say how the fight for democracy in World War II inspired blacks to fight for their own rights?  Completely unaware of the role of religion in any reform movements since 1945?  Then you’ll probably have difficulty distinguishing the deficit from the national debt and be ready prey for the politicians who specialize in manipulation and deliberate misrepresentations.  Hold onto your seats fellow citizens.  We’re in for a bumpy ride.

We are told by some that we should not be overly alarmed.  In a clever piece still worth reading published by HNN in 2005 in response to the last NAEP survey, Stanford’s Sam Wineburg (who has again offered his thoughts on the latest results) ridiculed the Cassandras who warn that the fate of the Republic is jeopardized by the ubiquity of low history scores.  If they were correct, he argued, "we would have gone down the tubes in 1917."  That was the year an early test showed how little students know about history.

I will not charge Wineburg with complacency, as he is as concerned as I am with students' ignorance.  I am sure he would not agree with the gentleman I met in London a few years ago who assured me that the American people, whatever their faults, always come out right in the end, however ill-informed they are—owing to some magical potion in our water, one supposes.  But he seems to me to miss three points:

1.)  We have paid quite a price in the last century for our ignorance of history even if we have managed in spite of it to endure. 

2.)  Abundant evidence suggests that both students and the general public know less today in some respects than their parents and grandparents, evidence I cite in my book (see chapter two).

3.)  The increasing use of polls and the growing absence of gatekeepers in both the media and political parties give the public today a far larger role in the direction of government than in the past, leaving us less well prepared than before to deal with complicated policies and situations and this at a time when the world is becoming more complicated, not less.

Fortunately, we do not have to agree on the scope of the problem to resolve to do something about it, whatever its dimensions.  But here too disagreements abound.  Do we jettison the much-derided textbook, which reformers seem unable to slay despite their best efforts over several generations?  Do we teach history backwards?  Do we build the curriculum around social problems and relevance?

Wineburg is in the camp that wishes to kill off the death defying vampire-textbooks.  In their place he wishes to use movies supplemented with special texts filled with primary documents.

The trouble with this approach is that it leaves students without a strong sense of chronology.  We will then have more students possibly than at present who do not know in which century the Civil War took place.

Personally, I am quite fond of the textbook.  A nerd in high school, I spent the summer of 1971 memorizing Thomas Bailey’s The American Pageant, allowing me to opt out of US History 101 my junior year and study select subjects in-depth instead.  Admittedly, most students do not benefit from their assigned textbook, but some do, as I did.

But textbooks are dull, the reformers complain.  Indeed, they are by and large (though I loved Bailey’s).  They do not compare to a good movie in entertainment value.  Are they therefore to be done away with?  Algebra was dull too, as I recall.

I could go on.  But there is not enough room here to tackle meaningfully the pluses and minuses of proposed reforms.

What I would suggest we focus on in place of a discussion of means is a discussion of ends.  To what end do we wish students to learn history?  Perhaps having settled this question the means will suggest themselves.

Three goals come readily to mind.  History should prepare students to understand 1)  the complexity of events, 2)  why they react to events the way they do given our history, and 3)  key turning points in history, both at home and abroad.  As a political historian I am most concerned that students be able to resist the manipulation of history by politicians, something I hope they would pick up in a class about complexity.  We have had enough of wars based on dubious and simplistic analogies.  

I should end on one reassuring note.  However difficult it is to design a history curriculum, we all seem to share the belief that we should have one.  Americans, whether red, blue or green, generally believe it is a good idea for us to understand our own history.  On this past week’s poll at Vote iQ, the website that helps voters become smarter about politics, 100% of the users agreed with the statement that it is “important that voters in a democracy are familiar with the history of their own country.”  100% also agreed that politicians should be familiar with our history as well.  Out of 32 polls done in the last six months, these are the only questions that have received unanimous support. 


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