History on Trial

The Chronicle of Higher Education again published an article on the state of American history and Economics among many of America’s college students. According to it, students are getting dumber in history. The think tank that conducted the study found that seniors in college knew as much as, if not less than entering freshman. James Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, blames the decline of history on misguided teaching. For example, teachers and textbooks still teach that most people believed the world was indeed flat by 1492 – – which was clearly false. I have found such errors in the American Pageant textbook that I used years ago. Moreover, the teaching of American history has been “overly” glorified in that we (American teachers) must teach false romanticized history as part of citizenship, duty, and patriotism. Because of this, students lack the analytical skills necessary to think in a historical manner. Howard Zinn blames this on the growth of capitalism and nationalism. I am assuming that his arguments builds on the construction of national identity, thus without glorification a great nation struggles to showcase any identity during challenging times such as 9/11. I try to get my students to look at the historical process from various points of views. Americans must learn to place blame on the actions of “grand” historical figures. We often try too hard to protect the actions of many under the umbrella of “it was a different time.”

When I ran this piece years ago, I had students answer a few question to see how they might do; I will not ask this time. I am curious to see a survey on how national history is being taught in other countries. History on Trail, a book I read in graduate school years ago, addressed this topic. I find that people are confused or just blind to the thought that ideology has nothing to do with history; it has everything to do with it. It shapes the past.  There seems to be two very strong point of views on this subject and the problem of teaching American history in schools.

Here is an account from an anonymous source on the negative:

The National Standards forward the socialist program of dividing Americans into artificial groups and them pitting them against each other (divide and conquer). It emphasizes group rights at the expense of individual rights, which is the road to tyranny. It also furthers the socialist program of cutting Americans off from their democratic and European traditions, which stand in the way of establishing a totalitarian socialist state.It promotes the false idea that all cultures and civilizations are equal, which is false. European civilization is demonstrably superior to all the rest. It seeks to destroy Americans faith in themselves and their country. It suppresses all of the ideas from the Scottish Enlightenment (Locke, Smith, etc)upon which America was founded. It fails to explain the greatness of the Constitution, and its role as the sole protector of American liberty, which is not surprising given the long standing socialist. hatred of the Constitution.All in all, it is a shameful work, and fully illustrates the moral corruption of socialism that has taken over the American educational system, including the University system.

I call on all Americans to take action to remove this terrible blight on our society. Unite by taking control of local school boards and University Boards of Directors. Then force the academics to purge the curricula of all the socialist and multicultural lies.

Here is a much more positive account… and one I agree with:

This is the kind of book I’d like to have written – the kind of book that would really clarify a lot of public debate, not to mention academic work done in the discipline of history, if it were widely read. It does three things at once: meticulously defend the proposed U.S. National History Standards against their often savage right-wing opponents; make the case that history teaching is an important forum for the working out of cultural anxieties; and provide a chronicle of debates over historical meanings and teachings since the founding of the Republic, and earlier. A really well-written and important work, both for history students and teachers and for the interested public

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5 thoughts on “History on Trial

  1. In Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts by Sam Wineburg, the author presents this assessment of the abysmal state of historical knowledge:

    “Surely a grade of 33 in 100 on the simplest and most obvious facts of American history is not a record in which any high school can take pride.”

    He then challenges readers to identify the source of the quote, which he reveals to have been 1917 in a study of 668 high school students in Texas.

    Such complaints about the alleged decline are deployed by all sides in the debate that pitted Nash, et al against Lynne Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, and their minions. James Loewen sides with Nash, as do most academic historians. But not all.

  2. I often find myself struggling with the notions of context when considering historical events, though most of my thinking happens within the parameters of literature. How DO we reconcile the mores and attitudes of those in the past with our own, and do we run the risk of romanticizing history by making incorrect assumptions about the changes that human nature has (or, perhaps, has NOT) undergone in the past however-many years?

    My belief – and it’s been mostly borne out by experience – is that very little of the “basics” changes: as humans, we’re interested in – among many other things – power and control, lust and desire and, more hopefully, compassion and justice. It’s how those things play themselves out in different periods (Shakespeare, let’s say, in comparison to Faulkner, in comparison to King) that interests me, and which I always fear I’m misinterpreting…

  3. Should all teachers show a nuanced approach to history, or is it permissible for a teacher to only show (or favor) one side to counter-balance a real or perceived imbalance in the country’s viewpoint? The attempt to show a “true” history of a thing can quickly become a rigid doctrine, regardless of ideology. While I do believe there are big truths to be found, there is wonderful room to consider and learn from other perspectives.

    History is not the only subject that Americans are weak on when they leave the education system. If indeed the majority of students are subjected to banal and distorted curriculum, what role does a bloated, inflexible, unionized, socialized education system play in that drama? Might a free-market educational system be more diversified in the way it approaches history?

  4. I question though the extent to which many of these reports are valid and without bias; I say this because there are those who have an agenda when it comes to what is taught. Often times, such reports are generated by the right because they think the left (multiculturalist or liberal professors) has a mass agenda. By putting out such data, it creates drama about all that is wrong, but fails to address all that is right. We educated all students; we do not just focus on the top. Many countries do not do this.

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