Looks like we are once again on the ‘why don’t our teenagers know a damn thing about history’ bandwagon. Seems like it was only yesterday that we learned from a poll in England that a significant number of students concluded that Winston Churchill was a fictional character. What I find troubling is the lack of historical context as part of our evaluations of these polls. We proceed as if we have left a golden age where America’s teens soaked up historical knowledge along with the understanding that it all contributed to the maintenance of democracy and their role in it. Do teenagers today really understand less than say high schoolers in the 1950s? How about teenagers in the 1920s or 1880s? Does it even make sense to draw such comparisons? From USA Today:
Among 1,200 students surveyed:
•43% knew the Civil War was fought between 1850 and 1900.
•52% could identify the theme of 1984.
•51% knew that the controversy surrounding Sen. Joseph McCarthy focused on communism.
In all, students earned a C in history and an F
in literature, though the survey suggests students do well on topics
schools cover. For instance, 88% knew the bombing of Pearl Harbor led
the USA into World War II, and 97% could identify Martin Luther King
Jr. as author of the "I Have a Dream" speech.
Fewer (77%) knew Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped end slavery a century earlier.
This is the kind of feedback one typically finds in these surveys. Rarely is there any discussion as to why these results matter. Why does an understanding of the theme of 1984 matter or the connection between McCarthy and communism? I listened to a number of interviews last night and they all followed the same script. Supposed experts discussed the poll, but not one reflected on the significance of the results beyond the standard vague references that teenagers are preoccupied with x, y, and z or that our schools have failed them or that this constitutes a threat to our democracy.