Sunday, June 21, 2009

No sense of historicity

One of the major developments in education I have seen during my own lifetime is an almost complete collapse of the study of history in schools. By the time I went through grammar school (now a misnomer) and high school, they (the radical liberals) had managed to eliminate geography as a subject, but we did have history, even a course on the history of Arizona that was quite detailed.

With the introduction of standardized testing and standardized lesson plans, there is no longer any room in the curriculum for anything having to do with history. Now, they have "social studies" and include a very limited view of certain historical events. Children now get all the way through high school without ever hearing about the Babylonians, the Romans, the Greeks or anything else, although they might have a unit on some aspect of minority history or the U.S. Civil War but the teachers now manage to teach the Civil War without mentioning U.S. Grant.

Likely, anyone born since 1950 has only a very sketchy understanding of the history of the Americas, including the early colonies and up to the Revolutionary War. Quizzing some of my grandchildren, I find that few have heard of most of the major figures of American history and have only the vaguest idea of even major events in U.S. history, like World War I and many of my grandchildren are in "advanced placement" whatever that means.

In looking at the "social studies" books it is evident that the selection of topics is highly skewed towards those dealing with minority issues at the expense of mentioning even the most famous of our non-minority prominent people. However, this decline in an understanding of real history is only part of a greater decline in Western Culture and Civilization. Cutting ourselves off from the past only guarantees that we will lose whatever measure of civilization and civility we have left.

This decline was noted in a recent news article by the Publisher of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, Utah. Quoting from Joseph A. Cannon,"For some years now, notable historians, philosophers and other scholars such as Jacques Barzun, John Lukacs, Alasdair MacIntyre, Pierre Manent and a host of others have diagnosed and chronicled the rise of the modern West and its gradual descent to the present. Barzun's magnum opus, "From Dawn to Decadence, 500 Years of Western Cultural Life" is one such chronicle. Lukacs, in "At the End of an Age," "describes how we in the Western world have now been living through the ending of an entire historical age that began in Western Europe almost 500 years ago."

In another quote Cannon says, "This intense focus on the emancipation of the individual led to a humanism which "is accordingly charged with inverting the relation between man and God, with atheism and the secularizing of society." The result of this individualism, humanism and emancipation from authority results in a culture that "is old and unraveling."

My observations are not unique about the decline of history education, from an article entitled "American Students and the Decline in History, by Michael Streich, he says, "In a November 25, 2007 Washington Post story, Naomi Wolf presented the bleak facts: “…only 47 percent of high school seniors have mastered a minimum level of U.S. history and civics, while only 14 percent performed at or above the ‘proficient’ level…” (“Hey, Young Americans, Here’s a Text for You”). She further writes that middle school students in most states are not even required to take classes in civics and government."

This lack of historical understanding would not be such an issue, if those who are beginning to run the country were not in the same category. The latest crop of government bureaucrats grew up during this dearth and they do not exceed the norm. In a Intercollegiate Studies Institute report on "Our Fading Heritage" the major finding include that Americans fail the test of civic literacy. The Instituter's study noted that the vast majority of Americans can no longer even recognize the language of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and less than half of the Americans tested could name all three branches of the government.

I suggest that it would be hard to find a college student today who had read even one of the The Federalist Papers or who even recognized the name of Thomas Paine.

We are not only on our way to moral bankruptcy, we are already bankrupt of knowledge of our past and like the proverbial ship without a rudder, we are cast on the sea of the future without a guide.

Let's start today by reading some of our basic historical documents, like the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and maybe a good history book about Western Civilization, but nothing written in the past thirty or forty years, please.


  1. Check out Victor Davis Hanson, Who Killed Homer?

  2. Bravo, James! Brilliantly put.

    David & I have been discussing ALL of this for a long time. The struggles we've had with our kids in 'inner-city' schools! The blank faces from people who think both of us are using advanced vocabulary! The massive vacuum from teens to adults who seem to never crack a book - ever - or the few that do read and limit it to a trendy NY Times best-seller! Who would read a history book? Gag.

    An acquaintance went back to school in her mid-40's and graduated from ASU a few years ago and began teaching the 4th grade. Several times she would complain to me about some classroom difficulty, and predictably I would say something she had been trained was incorrect to do with kids. (Speaking of methodology)

    My retort would always be, "Where's the inspiration? You're presenting a curriculum that is so dummied-down, who's going to be motivated by that? A child must have beautiful language (meaning big words) and poetry and literature and classic speeches to really feel something!"

    After she got over her shock at how wrong I was (I was not a trained educator so I couldn't possibly understand how to properly teach children), she actually told me to my face she was surprised I seemed to be "very well read" for not having a degree. ( ! )

    Gee. Um - thanks.

  3. i am not 100% certain how i found your site - i was rambling this way and that...

    but, i would like to say - first off, you aren't wrong that students aren't being taught history.
    you are wrong when you claim that this is the fault of "liberals"
    liberals, people in the United States who stand on the left side of the political spectrum when it comes to social policy, are the people who want, and have been trying to get, *more* money for education -
    money that would be spend actually teaching students things.
    it is conservative activism that has removed so much of the school curriculum - for instance, it was thought, for centuries, that education in the Arts was part of a well-rounded education... yet, when budget cuts happen, what are the first programs to go? Art, music, drama - because conservative policy makers say things like "you don't need art to get a job to support yourself"
    you don't need to know about the Spanish-American war to support yourself, either. or about the Greco-Roman Empire, the history of Industrialization, Women's Suffrage, or the various treaties that the US signed in the 1800's that include lines like "Whereas the United States of America is not a Christian Country...".

    Student's don't *need* to learn Algebra - because really, how often does your average worker use Algebra once they are out of school? students don't *need* history lessons, don't *need* to read "literature", don't *need* to know what actually caused the Civil War or what the Stamp Tax was really about.

    *Should* they know? of course they should. everyone should. but it won't happen until we spend more money on education - until we actually treat education as a priority. right now, schools are basicly "teaching" students how to take tests, because this is the cheapest way to do it. the whole system needs an overhaul.

    but... not, i think, the one you seem to be advocating. you do realize that Black History Month, for example, means that the *only* time students are given any information about Black History is during that time? that, in general, *every* month is "White History Month", and the times when students learn about minorities are rare?
    and, as a Native American, i have to say - the total lack of teaching about Native Americans in public schools is actually rather scarey - most of our history has been totally *erased* - there is never any discussion about land-grabs by Europeans, no talk about the deliberate infections of smallpox that took place, no talk about how Native children were essentially kidnapped by the US government and indoctrinated and forced to convert to Christianity. and that only covers about 25 years of history in regards to *one* tribe - there is more history in the US about Natives than anything else, and yet the actual teaching on this subject that is done doesn't even take a month of classes.

    yes, the education system needs to be completely retooled. and needs *more* taught, not less.

  4. denelian:

    I'm not sure where you draw most of your conclusions, other than you seem to have been affected by the very institutions condemned in this post.

    The issue isn't money at all. The issue stems, in major part, with the federal government stepping in to "fix" education by trying to make it "fair" across the board. Once the feds stepped in and federal money was at stake, the states reduced their spending on schools so the states could expand spending on other pet projects instead of focusing on schools.

    With the extraordinarily liberal No Child Left Behind Act, federal imposition of the control of money was complete. No school can function without catering to the federal demands.

    All of the school theories which have neutered schools stem from failed theories of teaching starting with the 1960s, from liberalized universities. The entire argument is outlined in the book by Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, published in 1987. You might also check out the book I suggested at the top of these comments by Victor Davis Hanson, Who Killed Homer?

    If children come out of grammar school unable to understand grammar, unable to read, unable to write, unable to do math, unable to formulate a coherent argument, unable to read primary texts, unable to identify founding US principles, then what good is trying to teach them any history at all? How are they to understand the role of Native Americans if they cannot understand the implications?

    It's not the quantity of teaching at stake here, it's the quality.