Don’t Know Much About History

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Jane Hall is an assistant professor in the School of Communication at American University in Washington, D.C. She is a weekly panelist on the “Fox News Watch” media-analysis program on the Fox News Channel..

As a journalist-turned college professor, I was dismayed--but not surprised--by the dismal results of the latest U.S. History Report Card testing the knowledge of high-school seniors about what used to be considered major events in American history. To be fair, I'm not sure I could write a long essay on the War of 1812. But 52 percent of 12th-graders failing-on a multiple-choice exam--to pick out the former Soviet Union as our ally during World War II? And 71 percent missing the significance of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution? That's scary.

I teach a large undergraduate course at American University called How the News Media Shape History. It's a popular course (created by my colleague Rodger Streitmatter) that examines the influence of news media during specific chapters in U.S. history. While I am often gratified by students' discovery of the derring-do of Nellie Bly, the wicked caricatures of Thomas Nast or the outraged eloquence of Edward R. Murrow in his broadcast from Buchenwald, I am also startled by the huge gaps in our collective unconscious. Tom Paine and Frederick Douglass? Students have heard of them. Ida Tarbell or even Ernie Pyle? You're likely to get blank stares.

I don't know exactly what students are learning in junior high and high school about American history--I'm sure that they're doing a better job of teaching about cultural and ethnic diversity today than when I was forced to take an entire year of Texas history (that's right--Texas--not U.S.-history) in junior high, memorizing that my home state had 254 counties (I think I'm still right on that) and learning God knows what imperialist vision of the settling of Texas and"the heroes of the Alamo."

But, even when it comes to the more radical periods of American history, I find college students surprisingly uninformed. They don't seem to know, for example, that this country had Socialists and Communists in it during the Great Depression, or that anti-Catholicism was a powerful force during the 1920s. They're not only fuzzy about important dates in American history, they're lacking the knowledge and context that makes the heroes and heroines of American history inspiring. My women students, in particular, are fascinated to hear about the challenges faced by pioneer female journalists in broadcasting. But if you've never heard of these pioneers before--and if you don't know that it took women 75 years and some radical action to get the vote--how can you appreciate the gains that women have made to this point?

Such ignorance of the past, of course, has consequences in young people's thinking. They're easy prey for the latest in pop thinking from magazines and popular culture-and, more ominously, they're easy marks for spin from political operatives or convenient memory loss from the government. If all you know about feminism is Britney Spears or the latest study telling young women they'd better hurry up and have a baby, of course, you're going to declare, as so many of my women students do when I ask the class,"I'm not a feminist." If you don't know that reporters regularly traveled with and reported on American troops in Vietnam, you're going to think it's natural for the U.S. military to severely restrict media access first to the Persian Gulf War and later to the campaign in Afghanistan.

Ironically, I find, it is the more recent chapters in American history that are the most obscured from the view of many young people. They're pretty clear on the Founding Fathers; it's the 1960s and beyond where I feel that I get the most blank stares. You could chalk this up partly to generational narcissism on my part: I am a child of the 1960s and, like many people my age, I was shaped by the forces of that era. But, apart from my own coming-of-age, I believe that the 1960s are an important period in our recent history. And I am startled to find that the tumult of those times is often shrouded in ignorance and myth.

This semester, as an experiment, I asked my students to survey three people (two of them college students, one a person over 25) about Martin Luther King, Jr., a man they've surely studied at length in school. Almost all of the respondents volunteered that King was most famous for his"I Have a Dream" speech, and most said"elementary school" when asked where they had learned about King. But not that many people knew that King had opposed the war in Vietnam. And here's generational narcissism and painful memory at work: the 45- and 50-year-olds surveyed thought Martin Luther King was close to their own age today when he was assassinated. Younger people were better at estimating the correct age (39).

I blame television, in part, for the ahistorical nature of our society. It's the"Today" show, not the"Yesterday" show, that brings us the day's news. With all the live,"breaking news" coverage in the 24-hour news environment, there are stories that shouldn't be covered (live local car chases with no national significance) and stories (the Robert Blake arrest) that don't merit endless repetition of the few facts known-along with coverage of the truly important and newsworthy. But looking backwards is fairly rare on the news.

A TV series like Ken Burns's"Civil War" on PBS can illuminate an era for viewers young and old. But it's the mass media--including mass entertainment media--that many young people are paying close attention to. And the commercial culture--buy new and buy now--does not lend itself to historical reflection.

But the press of popular culture does not mean that we should let ourselves or our students off the hook when it comes to learning American history. We should certainly use popular culture to draw parallels to the past, but I have a sneaking suspicion that too many high-school students are studying the semiotics of"South Park" without learning the basics of history. I hate to sound like a neoconservative, but maybe more students should be asked to memorize (yea, even retain) more dates and other facts from American history. (Those timelines are instructive, especially in this hopped-up, present-tense world.) And if, as some reports suggest, there are too many junior-high and high-school students learning history from teachers who did not major or minor in history themselves, that, of course, should be addressed in the ongoing debate about educational opportunity and reform.

When it comes to common references in entertainment, it's semi-amusing to hear the joke about the young fan who comes across a Beatles CD and exclaims,"Hey, I didn't know Paul McCartney was in a group before Wings!" But when it comes to American history, it's not funny to contemplate a new generation of young people who can all spell Eminem but don't know a lot about Reconstruction. Would our schools want to send their sports teams out to play without coaching? That's what we're doing with our future voters and leaders if we don't teach them enough about the events that shaped our nation today.

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David L Taborsky - 7/8/2004

I am interested in different cultures. I fantasize about living at diferent times in American history. But if you are in a current class or read most current books they do not try to make the person understand what the society was like at that time. Instead, they write as if all the rules of our current culture is and were devinely right and were obvious at all times and will always be constant. Anyone who deviates from these rules is judged harshly by our current devine historians. History then becomes simply a way to prove that you are right, whether it is about economics, human rights, or politics. This is what most classes I have taken in history devolves into, and to tell the truth most people are tired of being preached to. If instead, history would put more emphasis on first hand accounts, reality and not some politcally correct sanitized, filtered, and interpreted reading, maybe people would find it interesting and a bit amazing.

Comment - 6/8/2002

Yes, we should be concerned. The study of history can be made interesting which should encourage readers to read, but the most important reason to study history is not to memorize dates and people but to understand the reasons why and the outcomes of historical actions. Causes and effects are often the part that is left out; therefore, students view history as boring. In Texas, teachers substitute boring reading passages during social studies time MANY times to supposedly increase study time for reading. The truth is that the time is spent on \"drill and kill\" read and mark passages trying to get students to pass the TAAS (or 2003 TAKS). If this practice was stopped in our state, then students could accomplish both goals, improving reading and learning about history. The only problem then would be to ensure that teachers concentrate on causes/effects and relevance to today. Keep up the attention needed on this topic. We must understand where we\'ve been in order to know why and where we\'re going.
K. Jones

Mark Clizbe - 6/5/2002

I agree with Mr. Frucher about the "de-contextualization," if that's a word, of high school history. All the more reason to slow down and consider fewer, central deatils, rather than cover an onslaught. That does not mean that we ignore lynching, sexual politics, and labor protest for the sake of Honest Abe and Ike, but choices do have to be made.

Mark Clizbe - 6/5/2002

My students don't spend much time dancing on desktops. I'm also not sure how "feel-good" our "cultural-awareness" pieces are. They do spend time, however, developing the ability to examine and evaluate historical events in some depth, with some sophistication. 5th-graders, even if they were exposed to the events of the Revolution, for example, would need a more advanced review in 11th grade. The result is that Ida Tarbell may be left out, despite my reluctance to ignore a woman who taught others how to think critically about the information they receive. Learning history has to happen in layers, over time, and can't be done in one year of classes.

Virginia DeMarce - 6/1/2002

I went to a one-room, 8-grade school in the 1940's. I do not recall that we studied American history at all (I believe that I would remember it if we had done so, since I eventually got a Ph.D. in history).

In 9th grade, we had civics; in 10th grade, we had world history; in 11th grade, we had American history; in 12th grade, we had optional topics (a quarter for each one). This was taught by the American history teacher: the year that I took it, we spent one quarter on the workings of the Federal Reserve banks, one on the United Nations, one on the history of the right to vote in the US from the revolution until what was then the present (1956), and one on the Supreme Court.

Duby Diggs - 5/31/2002

Once upon a time when I was a secondary student, High School U.S. History followed (and presumed a prior exposure to) U.S. History teachings in K-6 and Junior High. If eight months out of 13 years is really the only American history kids today now get (and even that is more about feel-good "cultural awareness" than actually learning about the past) then I wonder what students are doing the rest of the time. Dancing on the desktops ?


James Gutowski - 5/30/2002

After reading Professor Hall's article, any high school teacher can recognize the problem. especially at this itme of the year. Her examples of what students don't know come from World War II and after, eras that are generally lightly covered or missed altogether in survey courses where teachers find themselves running out of time at the end of the term. Having taught a survey course for seven years, its a constant challenge for me to go into depth on important issues in American history and still cover enough chronological ground to get to 1969.

Mark Clizbe - 5/30/2002

As a teacher of high school students, I'm not sure that I'm all that depressed to know that most students don't know who Ida Tarbell and Ernie Pyle were. It seems to me that our job at the high schol level is to ensure that students can write clearly and convincingly, that they can determine cause and effect in historical events, and that they have an appreciation for the complexity of history and historiography. Some basic knowledge is essential for those endeavors. But the details must be accumulated over a longer period of time than the eight months we have in a US history survey, especially when one considers that students must also master the basics of mathematics, foreign language, and science.

CG - 5/29/2002

As someone who was a late '70s/early '80s Beatles fanatic (I once owned 69 Beatles and solo-Beatles albums, singles, and 8-tracks), it pains me to say it, but surely the author's typical student cannot really readily identify Wings, right? In my experience, on the other hand, Martin Luther King, Jr. is about the only historical personage of whom college students can be expected to have heard. More than once, in fact, I had students in first-semester Western Civ. courses respond to the question "Describe Martin Luther's religious teaching and explain its significance" by telling me about the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the March on Washington!

I do not see, by the way, why a rounded secondary education should not include a year of state history.

Michael Fazackerley - 5/29/2002

I am Canadian so my experience doesn't coincide with American students and American history but the discussion and unfortunately the realities remain the same. In fact, they're worse.

The United States has maintained a pride in it's heritage and history that most Canadians find rather distasteful which is probably due in part to jealousy. Canada for having developed the idea of a cultural mosaic rather than the melting pot philosophy tends to experience an identity crisis among those who have been here for several generations. Interestingly those that have recently immigrated have a great deal more national pride. Canada might due well for having everyone complete the citizenship test as part of their high school curriculum. For that matter, it couldn't hurt the United States either.

As you've stated the youth of today tend to identify much more strongly with pop culture and shallow commercialism than anything else. Increasingly this is leading to a prevalent attitude of indifference, apathy and hopelessness. It's frightening to see the strong sense of identification youth feel towards the message of bands like Linkin Park who preach of an existence where nothing they do will make any difference.

I wonder however if we're missing the point and we simply haven't listened to young people enough. When I manage to connect with some of the slightly more enlightened they tell me they identify with these things because it's an expression of anger about this kind of thinking. A cathartic sort of experience. A catharsis that I found that I experienced as a youth when listening to Nine Inch Nails. In saying this I have of course dated myself as a somewhat young person. This however I feel makes me a good bridge to ameliorate understanding of those a few years younger than myself.

In essence what I'm saying here is that indeed there are things that should change and there always shall be but it's not nearly so bad as it may appear. Despite the fact that kids indulge in the nuances of pop culture and sing to the anthems they're not necessarily so easily lead as they may seem. Kids if anything these days are more aware of everything. We can thank the interenet for that and although some may see it as a bad thing like anything it can exert a positive influence.

Television is another major contributer of course but it's not without it's merits either. Despite the seeming vacuity of South Park and The Simpsons they're not without their lessons. These are not simply vulgar, shallow, and senseless shows. In fact, they're much deeper than a lot of the sitcoms popular with adults. Both of these shows highlight important aspects of nationalism, lobby groups, social relations, economics, family and government. Despite the fact that we may think young adults don't "get" this sort of thing from these shows I really believe they do and largely problems with youth stem from adults not showing them the proper respect for their minds and ideas.

aaron frucher - 5/29/2002

I agree with the author. I think that names and dates have been trivialized. In addition, the entire academic experience has been de-contextualized "in this hopped-up, present-tense world." High schoolers see the entire processes as more of a social litmus test then a facilitator of personal growth. It's ironic that or children's desire for good stories is monopolized by the "Real World," and live action comics, and over looked in the telling of our shared past. maybe the answer is in multi-media and other inter active or visual teaching methods, as opposed to dry lectures read verbatim from the text books.