Fear Mongering With History

Keep CalmOver the weekend I heard a distinguished and recently retired Civil War historian lament the state of history education today. It’s not the first time that I have had to sit through such a doomsday scenario, but I don’t mind admitting that it was just a bit more painful given that it took place in front of a room full of history teachers.

Our students know nothing about American history and our political leaders are not much better. At one point this speaker suggested that our elected leaders ought to take a history test as a prerequisite for political office. The comment received a hearty round of applause from the audience. The situation is apparently so dire that this speaker actually compared our current situation with America in the 1850s.

Within a short span of time this speaker managed to manipulate the audience, first by suggesting that our students are woefully ignorant compared to our parents and grandparents and then by offering a bit of historical interpretation that has our country headed straight for a cliff. I reject both of these claims, but more importantly, I reject the nostalgic embrace of a mythical past with which to compare our own time.

To make such a claim you have to ignore history. You have to ignore the racial and social disparities that have existed throughout this nation’s history and its impact on who received and who did not receive and adequate education. You have to ignore the content contained in many textbooks on key topics in American history. Finally, you have to ignore the fact that there is very little evidence to suggest that our parents and grandparents were better informed about this nation’s history. Am I really to believe that Americans today know less than they did in the 1920s, 1890s, 1850s or 1820s?

Educators are already saddled with enough pressure from parents, administrators, and demanding politicians who resist providing our schools with sufficient funds and resources. Let’s not add to it by distorting the very subject that all of us value.

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42 comments… add one
  • Neil Hamilton Jul 21, 2016 @ 13:36

    Whenever I hear some one moan for “the good old days,” I seriously want to punch them dead in the mouth.


  • London John Jul 20, 2016 @ 2:28

    The Guardian considers itself the newspaper of well-educated liberals in Britain. Today it has a very long article about Victoria Woodhull (who ran for President of the USA in 1872) by Eileen Horne, which contains this sentence: “More controversially, she cited the 15th Amendment (which abolished slavery in 1870) as pertinent to women, who had long been in servitude.”
    What can you say? But things may be getting better. “Civil Rights in the United States 1865 – 1992” is now a course for A-level history (an exam taken at 18 mostly by students intending to go on to university).

  • Ken Hoffman Jul 19, 2016 @ 10:29

    What I remember from taking high school history is that those classes were the only high school classes that did not teach you how to do anything. I learned how to do math, chemistry, speak a foreign language, form a proper paragraph, do chin-ups and much more, but I was not taught how to do history in any way. I was just told to memorize this or that and regurgitate it on a test. There was no reasoning and problem solving involved. It was completely boring.

    Maybe if kids are taught how to think rather than what to think, they might like history. But I doubtubtingI;m domayI’m guessing that’s a pretty radical idea ifor h

    • Josh Liller Jul 20, 2016 @ 15:54

      “Maybe if kids are taught how to think rather than what to think, they might like history.”

      Putting more emphasis on the Why in grade school history might help make it more interesting, but I think the problem is that you don’t know enough What then you can’t understand the Why (or probably have any reason to care about it). For example, how can you understand the causes and effects of the American Civil War if you don’t know what the American Revolution, Lincoln, and Reconstruction are?

      I like to describe understanding history to putting enough facts in your brain until the facts start bumping into each other and spawning ideas and questions.

      I think the biggest problem with history isn’t the memorization, but that people think history is boring. Teachers need to make it interesting – share the interesting characters, places, events, and stories. And talk about it with some passion. If you’re not excited about history why the hell should your students be?

      • Ken Hoffman Jul 20, 2016 @ 19:47

        I never said that a teacher did not have to explain some things while teaching a course. But facts don’t necessarily “bump into each other,” its the teacher’s job to make that happen.

        One of the topics I teach is on Lincoln’s supression of the press. I ask questions like “Should a government supress free speech during war? If so, under what circumstances and to what degree? What did Lincoln mean
        when he said “should I preserve one amendment and lose the whole document?””

        I do the same with issues like the Emancipation Proclamation, Confederate guerillas, and Union hard war policies. Its about more than just teaching the war, its about understanding and reasoning through complex issues of politics and ethics.

        I doubt more than one in fifty high school history teachers does anything like this. I even doubt they know the ethical issues of the war. I know for sure it cannot be found in high school history textbooks like American Pageant.

  • Woodrowfan Jul 19, 2016 @ 7:40

    for all the standardized tests my students take, many of them don’t know even the basics, such as the difference between the Senate and House, how long a president’s term is, or even which party is which.

  • London John Jul 19, 2016 @ 7:20

    Why is history taught in schools? There are very many possible reasons for studying history, and which ones are considered most important must determine what is taught and how.
    One example is to learn something of how the world is run. That’s fairly easily met. I’ve never found it necessary to fundamentally change the understanding I got from learning about the English Enclosure Acts of the 18th Century at age 15.
    Another is to have some idea of how the present situation arose. In both the US and the UK slavery needs to be given a high profile, and I think that’s significantly improved over the last few decades in the UK.
    Another is to have some resistance to the flood of lies about particular historical issues that is always being put out by various interests. You’re doing great work on that front, Kevin.
    Another is to derive understandings of the present from the past. For example, the Tower of London was built by the Norman conquerors to overawe the Londoners and show them who was boss. It occurred to me while looking at the London skyline that the grotesque towers of the financial corporations have a similar purpose: they are the 21st century conquerors.

  • Jimmy Dick Jul 19, 2016 @ 6:09

    The real issue is not that students know less history, it is that their level of understanding history has not changed over the last century. I was working on my doctorate in education dealing with the history of education. The paper I was researching involved how education has changed since the early 1900s. One of the papers I was working with involved a study on whether student learning had increased over the last century. It was oriented to the discipline of history.

    The research indicated that students did poorly in history, but that this was not anything new. Students have always done poorly in history and that goes back to the early 1900s when the first data was available. It has just not been a discipline with a great deal of emphasis behind it for years. There are multiple issues that have contributed to this poor learning and they have varied over the last century, but generally speaking history has been the bastard stepchild of the public school educational system.

    Two things stand out from the paper as I recall. One is that most history teachers in K-12 do not have a degree in history. The other is that the emphasis recently has been on other subjects such as STEM. This has been fairly common for a long time even before the attention given to STEM.

    My degree program is in College Teaching and Learning. I have found it to be very interesting how little educational training has been given to most history instructors at the college level. This is starting to change a bit, but still most history instructors do not have any experience teaching. They tend to emulate those who taught them. The result is a continuing dependency upon lecture which has a pretty low transfer of knowledge capability compared to other teaching methods.

    I am not happy with history education in the US, but there are some pretty solid efforts underway that I think are promising in changing this dilemma. The problem is that we have way too many dinosaur type instructors that dislike change and it is going to take some time to weed them out in favor of instructors who have educational training and have studied how students learn.

  • Dudley Bokoski Jul 18, 2016 @ 17:49

    If the amount of time spent on history, civics, and geography has declined over time in favor of math and the sciences it would be surprising if today’s students weren’t better at math and not as knowledgeable of history.

    Back in the 1980’s the debate about how to absorb history into social studies intensified and the chronological school of history studies began to fade. Then, as now, the issue was how to allocate finite amounts of time.

    I suppose the question is what foundation do you want to provide at different ages? Not many would argue that additions to the traditional narrative of history aren’t useful, but the more specific you get (and the more time you use in any one area) the less chance students will have a broad, general knowledge available to build on as they progress.

    A lot of us took what we learned through the chronological approach (which included emphasis on geography and civics) and developed life long interest in history (and as a result learned a lot about social aspects of history as we went along).

    So if we’re doing the opposite of the chronological approach (start with narrow focus in fewer areas) with less overall time allocated to understanding eras and key events, will this method still produce students who will branch out and want to learn more about history? At fifty-nine I can’t offer any anecdotal evidence on the subject. Maybe we are doing better today, but I don’t think it is entirely unreasonable to wonder as the gentleman you referenced did, if we are not.

    But it is a cheerful side note to recall that in 1943 the NY Times reported on the results of a test given to 7,000 college freshmen in 36 institutions: only 45 percent could name four of the specific freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights; fewer than 25 percent could name two achievements of Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson or Theodore Roosevelt; less than 15 percent could identify Samuel Gompers as a leader of organized labor or Susan B. Anthony as an advocate of women’s rights and only 6 percent could name the 13 original colonies.

    The more things change the more they stay the same.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 19, 2016 @ 1:33

      But it is a cheerful side note to recall that in 1943…

      That is actually pretty good. I’ve seen much worse from this time period.

    • Will Hickox Jul 19, 2016 @ 8:49

      What makes this poll even more telling is that most college students in the pre-GI Bill 1940s would have been from the upper ranks of society and exposed to the best high school and prep school education then available.

  • TFSmith Jul 18, 2016 @ 12:04

    Same as it ever was. “Back in my day…”

    Which is a cliché, but pertinent, nontheless.

    What was it the distinguished speaker actually suggested as the path forward, rote memorization? More document-based study? Less? Were any solutions offered, or just complaints?

  • Ken Hoffman Jul 18, 2016 @ 11:51

    My views on this subject won’t endear me to anyone, but learning history just isn’t that important. I didn’t learn much about history until I was 49 years old. Yet I was keenly aware of most social issues and was able to figure out what made for a better society and what did not. And studying history for the past decade has not changed my socio-political views in the least.

    Public school history was bad in the 1930 and when I was in school 1963-1975. And it still bad today judging from the men dozens of college freshmen I’ve met. But today’s teens, as a whole, are much more advanced in math, science, and computers than ever before. I think that’s far more important in today’s world than learning history because that’s where opportunities are.

    I think behind these claims about needing better history is an idea that history somehow educates someone against bigotry. I don’t see that being true except a very small number of cases. Schooling seldom counteracts the influence of family and friends. And I also don’t see an answer in more spending on history education. People who are really enthralled with history don’t want to teach high school. This will just result in higher paid, mediocre school history teachers.

  • Patrick Jennings Jul 18, 2016 @ 10:07

    Our ancestors were better at history because they had less of it to learn. N’est–ce pas?

  • Pat Young Jul 18, 2016 @ 9:53

    After I read this blog post, I read my newly arrived New Yorker Magazine. In an article on former New Mexico gov Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate was directed to the Harriet Tubman room at a convention. Johnson asked “Who is Harriet Tubman?”

  • Forester Jul 18, 2016 @ 9:17

    “…suggesting that our students are woefully ignorant compared to our parents and grandparents.”

    Whoa. Hahahahahaha. Excuse me while I roll on the floor laughing. He has never met my parents and grandparents! My mother once held up her fingers pinched and said, “slavery had THIS MUCH to do with the Civil War.” My father thought it happened because “the South is where all the Christians were.” My grandparents are just apathetic.

    Al Mackey said: “Ask a typical student about the Wilmot Proviso and you’re likely to get a blank stare.”

    Huh? I had to Google that one. I didn’t remember it off hand, and I’m 29. I passed my history classes long ago with good grades, and I’ve been following Civil War blogs since 2011. So if you stumped ME … well, I can’t really hold it against the average teenager for giving blank stares.

    And now, I’m off to Wikipedia to study this Wilmot Proviso. As the hippies would say, thanks for turning me on, man. 🙂

    • Al Mackey Jul 18, 2016 @ 19:59

      See? The Wilmot Proviso, an important controversy on the road to the Civil War, and a blank stare followed by a trip to Wikipedia. [Better off going to David M. Potter’s The Impending Crisis or William Freehling’s The Road to Secession 🙂 ] But I bet ya know all about the Kanye/Kim/Taylor fiasco. 🙂

      The hippies were talking about something entirely different when they referred to “turning on.”

      • Forester Jul 19, 2016 @ 5:26

        “The hippies were talking about something entirely different when they referred to “turning on.”

        True, but I find history to be equally addictive …. and expensive. 😉

        • Mike Rogers Jul 19, 2016 @ 15:16

          Bernard DeVoto’s Year of Decision: 1846 has a really good section on Wilmot and his proviso

  • Pat Young Jul 18, 2016 @ 8:02

    I find myself less worried about the study of history in our high schools. Generally, schools in my area do about as good a job as they did when I was in school 40 years ago. There has been some reduction in the amount of time devoted to history classes, economics has replaced one semester of history.

    I do see high school students doing much less outside reading on history though. And there has been a sharp decline in the number of students studying history in colleges. Because law school is no longer as desirable as it was ten years ago, undergrads who pursued their passion for history knowing they could go to law school don’t see that as a viable option anymore.

  • Al Mackey Jul 18, 2016 @ 7:42

    I’ll bet I know who it is because I’ve heard it a few times before. 🙂
    I bet he also talked about the rise of political correctness. 🙂

    I have to agree that our politicians are woefully historically challenged, and in fact in many cases deliberately misuse history to further their agendas.
    What if Donald Rumsfeld had been conversant on Reconstruction history prior to the invasion of Iraq? Might he have predicted the growth of an insurgency in its wake? I’m not sure, however, that’s a real change from the past. Politicians, it seems, have always manipulated history and twisted it to suit their agendas.

    In a room full of history teachers he “manipulated the audience?” That tells me either a) they felt the same way before he started; or, b) he’s actually right about the problem and it’s even infected history teachers who lack the knowledge base to compare present with past circumstances. 😉

    Americans today don’t know less as a whole than previous generations, but what they know is in different areas. I think it’s natural for a history professor to look at that with sadness and frustration and lament the lack of interest in history. Ask a typical student about the Wilmot Proviso and you’re likely to get a blank stare. Ask that same student about Kanye, Kim, and Taylor Swift and they’ll hold forth for a half hour on every detail. I’m not sure that’s at all different from past generations. Doesn’t every generation lament the shortcomings of the younger generation?

    But perhaps he has a point. Perhaps, seeing students come and go over a multi-decade career he’s seen a drop in knowledge base and interest of students over the years. I can’t fault a history professor for believing historical knowledge is important for an informed citizenry, and if he’s seen such a drop, I also can’t fault him for being alarmed about it.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 18, 2016 @ 7:58

      I bet you do have an idea, Al. 🙂

      I can’t fault a history professor for believing historical knowledge is important for an informed citizenry, and if he’s seen such a drop, I also can’t fault him for being alarmed about it.

      I don’t know how to evaluate such a claim apart from the popular meme that we are witnessing a precipitous drop in historical knowledge. For some reason we have embraced it even though there is very little evidence to support the kinds of claims made by this individual.

    • Ken Noe Jul 18, 2016 @ 8:15

      I don’t know about Reconstruction, but Rumsfeld and especially Cheney were thoroughly in awe of the historian Victor Davis Hanson and his assertion that Judeo-Christian moral values get in the way of effective warmaking.

      • Kevin Levin Jul 18, 2016 @ 8:18

        I guess this speaks to the other common refrain, which is that we study history so we don’t make the same mistakes. We need to stop saying this.

        • Forester Jul 18, 2016 @ 13:15

          “I guess this speaks to the other common refrain, which is that we study history so we don’t make the same mistakes. We need to stop saying this.”


        • Josh Liller Jul 20, 2016 @ 15:34

          Stop saying it, or actually start doing it. 🙂

      • Al Mackey Jul 18, 2016 @ 8:30

        I don’t see any Hanson influence on the actual execution of the invasion. I see more influence of Boyd and Warden on the Air Force side. But the more I read about Reconstruction the more I see the failures of Iraqi Reconstruction, and the more I harken back to Rumsfeld’s overruling the professionals, with his saying we wouldn’t need a large force to keep order.

  • Andy Hall Jul 18, 2016 @ 7:21

    It was always better in the old days, Kevin. What “it” is, is irrelevant; it was better back then. Also, exactly when “then” was is not important, either. It’s an emotional argument that appeals to anyone who is uncomfortable to the way things are now, and lots of people buy into it.

    Hell, some day there may even be a charlatan who builds an entire presidential campaign around it.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 18, 2016 @ 7:37

      I know, I know.

      I am use to hearing this nonsense from the mainstream media whose sense of history goes back about two weeks, but it is another thing entirely for a seasoned historian to engage in such reasoning and especially in front of a room full of history teachers. They deserve to hear a more reasoned explanation.

  • Meg Jul 18, 2016 @ 6:42

    Having been in the trenches during most of the time history has been systematically excised from public school curriculum, I agree with Mr. Levin. We can’t waste time looking backward to a distorted past–we must go forward. I have no grand plan, except to get politics out of the classroom. When there is a fight over Common Core at the level of presidential candidates, things have gone way too far. Common Core is exactly what the public schools need to once again get a foot on the ground. We’ve been left hanging way too long. To those of you who think Common Core is some sort of conspiracy, take off your tin foil hats and go to the Gilder-Lehrman websites, go to the National Parks eduction links, go to the Smithsonian links–read some examples of CC lessons, and then decide if reading primary source documents, discussing events from different points of view, and trying to fit events into their proper context is bad, or finally a rational approach to learning/thinking that has been long absent from most classrooms, no matter what the subject.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 18, 2016 @ 7:09


      I am not in any way suggesting that historians do not face significant challenges with mandated curriculum and state standards. I intentionally avoided getting into this discussion to keep the focus on the theme of the talk I heard this weekend. Thanks.

  • Randy Watkins Jul 18, 2016 @ 6:28

    Who was the historian?

    • Kevin Levin Jul 18, 2016 @ 7:08

      It’s not important.

      • Alysse Mar 5, 2017 @ 12:14

        Really, Kevin? Do you think you have to the authority to withhold information such as that?

        • Kevin Levin Mar 5, 2017 @ 13:04

          Yes, I do believe I do have that authority.

    • Randy Watkins Jul 18, 2016 @ 10:16

      It’s important to me because I would like to see what he said. Is it in written form somewhere or online where I could read it or hear it.

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