“We will not be able to uphold our democracy unless we know our great stories, our national narration, and the admirable deeds of our great men and women….The loss of history [courses in American schools]…is already having dire effects on the quality of our civic life.”
So declares Dr. Wilfred M. McClay, who holds an endowed professorship in history at the University of Oklahoma and served eleven years on the National Council on the Humanities.
“Tough toenails, buddy.”
So declare school districts across the country that have ditched American history and civics courses to devote ever more resources to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs and Common Core requirements which don't include history.
The trend continues in higher education, where only 18% of colleges currently require a course in US history or government.
Yet far from being a second-tier subject, history (along with related disciplines such as civics, government, and geography) is an essential part of a complete education. History gives people a context for their lives and beliefs. It explains how their country and their culture got where it is, and equips students with the tools to understand and shape their futures.
Training Up Citizens
Many educators and observers agree with professor McClay's concern that deleting history from school curriculums deletes a crucial understanding of the world and their place in it from students' educational experience. He asks, “How can we expect our citizens to grapple intelligently with enduring national debates – the acts of dedication to the common good that are at the heart of civilized life – without training up citizens who know about and appreciate that democracy, care about the common good, and feel themselves a part of their nation's community of memory?”
Writing in the Washington Examiner, Eric Bledsoe points out that a “foundational knowledge of American history and government [is] essential to a healthy republic.” This knowledge, he adds, is the only guarantee of an informed electorate capable of keeping America strong.
How can tomorrow's leaders make responsible decisions about politics and government if they don't know how or why our political institutions developed as they did? How can they form a clear picture of world events without knowing what earlier generations discovered about the regions and cultures that drive those events? For example, how would their understanding of the conflict in the Middle East be enhanced by what Winston Churchill wrote about his military service there in the 1890s? Or what Marco Polo wrote about the same place on his way back from China to Italy in the fifteenth century? Both described the same lawless tribal culture. Neither adventurer would be surprised by the latest headlines from Afghanistan.
Though the world has changed immeasurably over the years, human nature remains the same. Learning what earlier generations did and what the results were, we can imagine what would happen today if we made the same choices given the same conditions. Understanding history makes tomorrow's predictions far more accurate; knowing the past – decisions made and the consequences thereof – is like having a time machine to peek over the horizon of the future.
Alas, a peek over the horizon of history education is not an encouraging sight. American students are likely to understand even less about their national story then than they do now. The 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found that less than 20 percent of US college graduates knew the consequences of the Emancipation Proclamation and just over half of them knew the term lengths of senators and representatives in Congress.
Nearly 10 percent thought TV's “Judge Judy” Sheindlin was a member of the Supreme Court. The continuing decline of history education to accommodate ever more math, science, and English will only make matters worse. In thirty years these uninformed people will be running the country. Without a historical context to help guide their decisions, they will lead surrounded by an information vacuum that robs them of the perspective and insight to choose wisely (though the idea of Judge Judy joining the Supremes is rather cool).
Geography is also a mystery to most college-age Americans. According to a National Geographic-Roper poll, fewer than half can find Japan, France, or Great Britain on a world map. Fewer than 15 percent can find Iraq or Israel, despite daily mentions of these countries in the news and their importance to American foreign policy. A country's location is a major influence on its history and relationships. Who are their neighbors? What are their resources? How do their cultural and political boundaries relate? Time and again these answers shape world events. Without studying them, students are needlessly flying blind into the future.
Perhaps most amazing of all, 11 percent of those in the National Geographic survey could not locate the United States on a map. That helps explain the story during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta of someone ordering tickets from New Mexico and being transferred to the international sales department because “New Mexico is a foreign country.” This may be the same sales person who worked later at a travel agency in my neighborhood and thought Paris was a country and that Bermuda was in the Caribbean.
Will History Vanish?
Unfortunately, rather than resisting, some educational testing and assessment companies have followed the trend toward eliminating or diminishing the emphasis on history and related fields. When the 2014 NAEP assessment reported their results that over a third of high school seniors lacked a basic knowledge of civics, the NAEP eliminated its civics test. Even the College Board has recently modified its AP history exam to reflect the reality that comprehensive college history courses are a vanishing breed.
History professor McClay writes, “The new AP history framework is organized around such opaque and abstract concepts as ‘identity,' “peopling,' ‘and ‘human geography.' It gives only the most cursory attention to traditional subjects, such as the sources, meaning, and development of America's fundamental political institutions, notably the Constitution, and the narrative accounting of political events, such as elections, wars, and diplomacy….Is this the right way to prepare young people for American citizenship? How can we expect our citizens to grapple intelligently with enduring national debates…if they know nothing of the long trail of those particular debates…?”
One practical challenge in defending history as compared with other subjects that have been steamrolled by STEM—music, art, foreign language—is that history is perceived in some quarters as boring. Reality check: History is never boring. It combines all the love, passion, triumph, courage, hubris, tragedy, confusion, and hope of the human experience in narrative form. It's boring historians that have given history a bad rap. Take for instance the professor at a certain university that will go unnamed for the present, who taught a course in what should have been a fascinating period of British history. What his initially eager audience got instead was the sight of a slightly built man entering the classroom every period at the stroke of the hour, taking a death grip on the lectern, and displaying the part in his hair for fifty minutes exactly while he read from his notes in a near-inaudible monotone.
The Past Matters
Yet for every history teacher like that one there are hundreds who bring the past vividly to life and demonstrate why it's still relevant. Novelist and Nobel laureate William Faulkner declared, “The past isn't dead. It isn't even past.” What happened then matters now, and we ignore the lessons of history at our peril. We cannot afford to squander the opportunity to learn from both the mistakes and successes of those who came before. As Thomas Jefferson put it plainly to his countrymen more than two hundred years ago, “No nation is permitted to live in ignorance with impunity.”
But without history in our classrooms, who will know Jefferson ever said that?