Historian Paul Johnson said, “The study of history is a powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance. It is humbling to discover how many of our glib assumptions, which seem to us novel and plausible, have been tested before, not once but many times and in innumerable guises; and discovered to be, at great human cost, wholly false.”
And as philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
History classes have been relegated to the second tier of learning in America’s schools. It started when history was no longer considered a specific independent course of study.
The idea, according to education historian Diane Ravitch, germinated in the 1930s. The plan was to create a more “integrated” curriculum, wherein the progressive concepts of “interdependence and democratic collectivism” replaced strict academic studies. This new integrated curriculum was called “Social Studies.”
Ravitch wrote the purpose of social studies was to usher in an era of “social and political change.” Influential educators such as Harold Rugg, William Kilpatrick, and John Dewey felt the study of history should be less subject-centered, and more focused on the social, economic and political challenges faced by the nation.
We have the opportunity afforded by hindsight to see the results of the past 70 years of social studies education. Separate studies by the National Constitution Center and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni revealed the following:
Less than half of adults surveyed knew that there are 100 senators in the U.S. Congress.
Only 4 in 10 adults knew a senator’s term was six years.
Only 6 percent of adults surveyed could name all four rights mentioned in the First Amendment. Even worse, many respondents named choice, privacy, tolerance, and diversity as rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Only one-third of college seniors could name George Washington as the victorious general of the Battle of Yorktown.
Less than one-fourth of college seniors knew James Madison as the “father of the Constitution.”
Only 22 percent of college seniors knew the phrase “Government of the people, by the people, and for the people” was from the Gettysburg Address.
“But Mike,” some of you are saying, “Those are just dates and names. It’s the ideas behind history that matter.” And I agree; it is the ideas that matter.
But in the same way that one must master arithmetic before algebra, and algebra before calculus, a student must learn the facts of history before they understand the ideas that brought about that history.
Few people can discuss the doctrine of appeasement who don’t also know the name Neville Chamberlain. And how many people understand all of the social and political causes of the Civil War, without knowing any of the facts about that war?
A weak curriculum is just part of the problem. Last year, Texas adopted new history textbooks. As a major purchaser, Texas plays a key role in the textbook review process. The state utilized a textbook review committee, as well as an $80,000 paid review team from Texas Tech. Four textbooks passed the review process that contained many factual errors.
One book named the 14th Amendment as the law extending the right to vote to black males. In fact, it was the 15th Amendment that did so. Another book mentioned the British surrender after the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812. The British did not surrender after that battle. Still another said that economic problems in the 1930s led to the rise of dictators in Japan, Germany and Italy. But Mussolini came to power in Italy in 1922.
And another discussed the Articles of Confederation, stating “Voting rights established by the Articles of Confederation were limited.” But the Articles of Confederation established no voting rights. Each state adopted its own voting laws.
Some local social studies guidelines list program goals such as “To understand cultural diversity,” and “to understand the causes and effects of various forms of discrimination.” Several goals call for the learner to study the “democratic process “, while not a single reference was made to the word “republic,” which is the form of government we live under.
Not all is negative. The local standards I read did include a discussion of federalism, and why it is at the foundation of our form of government. The guidelines also addressed many of the nuts and bolts that make up our governmental system.
The question to be addressed is this, however: How much of those positive guidelines are actually covered? Are we teaching the future leaders of America what they really need to know in order for them to make rational and informed decisions? Will history be a road map to help guide them, or will they view the lessons of history as little more than relics of the past?
Mike North is a professional land surveyor, amateur historian and former member of the Walker County school board. Send comments to him at Mike@myhumbleopinion.net. To read his past columns or contact him by Internet, visit www.myhumbleopinion.net