Every six months or so, the media predictably trots out some poll that reveals and bemoans young Americans' historical ignorance. Bob Herbert has an op-ed piece in yesterday's New York Times about the latest of that ilk.
Whether it shows that young people think that the Civil War began in 1776, or that Pearl Harbor was a famous jazz singer, or that George Washington was named after the city, the dismal results of each study are offered up to confirm, yet again, that, yes, we're doomed as a democracy.
Let me start by asking a radical but unloaded question: Why are we concerned that kids know the particular facts that such polls emphasize?
Let's think about it. Maybe it seems self-evident. Most of us will mutter about "needing to know where we're been to know where we're going," (huh?) or being well-rounded informed citizens (huh, again?), but do we really ponder why we care about particular facts, other than feeling a vague sense of unease?
Often, we're upset because young people apparently don't know anything about an historical event that's important to us personally, either because we lived through it, or because our parents did. Do any of us feel alarmed when kids profess ignorance and indifference toward the French and Indian War? C'mon, really? But if the same kids were to shrug their shoulders at, say, the Korean War or the Carter Presidency, we flip.
Partly, of course, we value recent history especially because we still see its consequences playing out in the present: 1968 has been the elephant in the room during the last two presidencies, for example. But, mostly, I would suggest, we value our children's knowledge of the recent past because we are alarmed at the idea of our own lived history vanishing into the mists of time.
I recall a faculty meeting at my first teaching job, where one of my colleagues, in his fifties, complained that our college students had no recollection of Watergate. I said that I sympathized: It was hard for me to feel the same way because I was living in England when Nixon resigned. "I was also ten years old," I added, with an unprofessional smirk around the middle-aged faces in the room. My colleague shuddered, but then I corrected myself. "No, wait, I was nine." Ooh, I was rotten, but it was a good point: How could Watergate have the same resonance for me? How could I be brought to comprehend the resonance that it had for my older colleagues?
Now, admittedly, my dad had the presence of mind in 1974 to drag me out of bed, and emphasize to me that an American president had never, ever resigned before, and that I should watch this historic event on the BBC. I agreed that this was something I wanted to see, but all I would remember ever after was that Nixon was on the verge of tears. I had never seen a grown man get emotional, and I felt so sorry for him. And so, all my life, I've had a soft spot for Richard Nixon that my American elders have never understood. Watergate has not had, and cannot have, the same emotional meaning for me as it had for those who lived through it as Americans of voting age. As an historian, however, I have forced myself to confront this and to read up on the subject. Result? I have a decent intellectual grasp of its impact on American culture, because I have done my best to put myself in the place of those who experienced it as American adults.
It's misleading of me, however, to imply that no events that predate the 20th century make it onto the history ignorance pollsters' radar. The Civil War, the Bill of Rights: These are iconic political events that we want teenagers to know. But do we want to know them in their historical context (how many American adults truly understand that the Bill wasn't handed down on gold tablets, but the highly-contested product of fierce debate?), or do we want kids just to "know" the simple facts themselves?
Which brings me to my main point: If we agree that, yes, kids should know when the Civil War happened, and who Adolf Hitler was, what do those who churn out these tedious polls actually propose we should do about it? The answer seems obvious: Redouble our efforts to teach kids these important facts. Seems wonderfully reasonable, doesn't it? Good, solid, old-fashioned, back-to-basics stuff that reflects an awful lot of history teaching, from kindergarten through college.
The problem is that it doesn't work.
Kids study for quizzes and tests without enthusiasm, and spit back the facts, which we all then assume they have "learned." They haven't, because nobody got them excited about history, and so they simply dutifully memorize what is put in front of them. Within months, weeks, even days, the facts have left them, because they never even vaguely understood what those facts represented to begin with. They don't understand the historical context, the particular cultures and societies that produced the events we hold sacred, and how differently they were understood by those who lived through them. They don't, in short, understand history, which is the study of change over time. And professional historians have done a truly crappy job of explaining this to the public.
That's why I encounter college students who think that the World War Two was a nineteenth-century event…or who cannot understand that the 1800s were the 19th century, not the 18th…or for whom the past has congealed into an ahistorical mess of facts, factoids, and non-facts. That is why an ordinary, undistinguished, but passionate historian at a no-name Southern university is throwing herself heart and soul into writing News from Snipesville.
In his Times article, Bob Herbert has cottoned on to the idea that ignorance of history somehow demonstrates that American high schools are failing students, by failing to provide them with the "intellectual tools" required to take on the 2lst century. But what are those intellectual tools? He doesn't say. Heads up, Bob: It's critical thinking. It's dealing with the past as if it were, to its participants, as meaningful and immediate as the present is to us. Let's get the focus off of what we teach kids, and swing the spotlight onto HOW we teach them. So long as we cling to the virtues of isolated facts, absurdly wide-ranging survey courses, and mindnumbing high-stakes tests, and not on exciting students with the intensive study of lived experience in the past, we will never fix the problems, any of them. And the Henny Penny History Polls will keep on appearing.
(For more on what I propose we do about it, watch this space. And let me hear your suggestions, too.)