Just As I Thought

We never remember the past?

In the last couple of years, the field I work in — social studies — has been under attack from the right wing, claiming that social studies undermines the teaching of history. This is patently ridiculous, as history is part of social studies. One of our members phrased it this way: history without social studies is like algebra without math.
One of the claims by the right is that without a strong grounding in history (well, their brand of history, which is recognized by a concentration of dead, white, rich, straight, Protestant men), students cannot understand the unique republic in which we live. This makes their anti-social studies argument even stranger to me, because the goal of social studies is to create effective citizens by integrating history with other subjects such as economics, religion, anthropology, geography… a whole list. Just learning the dates and events isn’t enough, you need to learn why they happened and how they affected the world. Of course, if students learned all that ad actually became effective citizens, they might vote out the right wing whack jobs. But I digress…
Anyway, there’s an interesting article in this morning’s Post showing that the lack of history knowledge that they’re all up in arms about has actually existed for a long time:

When the U.S. Department of Education reported that in 2001 nearly six out of 10 high school seniors lacked even a basic knowledge of the nation’s history, Bruce Cole was indignant and concerned.

“A nation that does not know why it exists, or what it stands for, cannot be expected to long endure,” said Cole, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

It is a sentiment repeated often, part of a torrent of distress over the state of American history education. The 2001 report said most 12th-graders did not know that the Gulf of Tonkin resolution led to the war in Vietnam. Most eighth-graders did not know why the First Continental Congress met.

Yet, according to recent papers by two researchers, it turns out Americans have been deeply ignorant of their history for a very long time, while still creating the strongest, if not the brightest, country in the world.

A test administered in 1915 and 1916 to hundreds of high school and college students who were about to face World War I found that they did not know what happened in 1776 and confused Thomas Jefferson with Jefferson Davis. A 1943 test showed that only a quarter of college students could name two contributions made by either Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln, leading historian Allan Nevins to fret that such a historically illiterate bunch might be a liability on the battlefields of Europe in World War II.

And still, Americans won both wars, and many of the 1943 students who said the United States purchased Alaska from the Dutch and Hawaii from Norway were later lionized in books, movies and television as “the Greatest Generation.”

“If anything,” writes Sam Wineburg, a Stanford University education professor in a new Journal of American History article, “test results across the last century point to a peculiar American neurosis: each generation’s obsession with testing its young only to discover — and rediscover — their ‘shameful’ ignorance. The consistency of results across time casts doubt on a presumed golden age of fact retention.

I still believe that social studies can save history. When teachers have to touch on so many points and facts in their curriculum, using social studies to integrate history with other subjects can create a fuller understanding of what students are learning and give them a point of reference to connect those events with their own lives. Facts and figures are dry, abstract things that create little interest for students.

The fact that we’ve never been particularly good at history, however, sort of cheers me — not because I’m glad we’re ignorant, but because it seems like we are more of a forward looking people. We’re always looking ahead (at least, those of us who are progressive), and it seems a great contrast to, say, Europe, which has such a long and well-remembered history dragging along like a ball and chain.

Browse the Archive

Browse by Category