“Leave Them Kids Alone”

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.

Enough with the surveys.  How about focusing on the numbers of students across the country who take part in National History Day events or the number of students who are currently majoring in history in college.  I don’t believe the sky is falling and I am not concerned about these surveys.  Most of the adults that I know who are middle age and older are just as ignorant.   Why not focus on them and leave the kids alone.

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4 comments… add one
  • Larry Cebula Feb 29, 2008 @ 9:41

    I hate these politically-motivated hit pieces that disguise themselves as educational research and beat up on our kids and teachers to score cheap partisan points. “Oh my gosh, kids today haven’t memorized long lists of names and dates! What are those lazy teachers doing all day long?”

  • Kevin Levin Feb 28, 2008 @ 16:24

    I agree with both of your comments, especially with Neal’s distinction between encouraging students to get involved in the civic process as opposed to cramming a bunch of facts down their throats.

  • Neal Feb 28, 2008 @ 15:54

    Agreed. There actually are plenty of past surveys (accompanied by plenty of op-ed pieces) demonstrating that the overall level of historical knowledge possessed by our youth is no worse now than for any previous generation (including the so-called “greatest generation,” who at the time of WWII were criticized for a similar lack of knowledge).

    It’s also a good idea to examine the reasons we consider history to be an important subject, notably the desire to promote “responsible citizenship.” I would much rather we spend time looking at how to get our kids more involved with the civic process than how to get them to remember every “important” date and name in American history.

    All of that is not to mention the innumerable benefits of learning how to analyze historical data and construct a persuasive argument based on it. 10 times out of 10, I would rather produce an intellectually curious student who can write a decent essay over a fact spewing automaton that can’t form an original thought.

  • Marissa King Feb 27, 2008 @ 21:26

    You’re absolutely right. Also, what these surveys typically miss is that history is much more than a disconnected list of facts. It is at least as important for teenagers to understand the implications and relevance of the facts than the exact facts themselves (e.g. understanding the implications of the Civil War rather than just knowing the specific dates between which the Civil War took place).

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