Over 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.