Sunday, June 21, 2020

History is Important, But No Longer Taught

"From this I conclude that the best education for the situations of actual life consists of the experience we acquire from the study of serious history. For it is history alone which without causing us harm enables us to judge what is the best course in any situation or circumstance." -- Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire (about 100 BCE).

A survey by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that “more Americans could identify Michael Jackson as the composer of ‘Beat It’ and ‘Billie Jean’ than could identify the Bill of Rights as a body of amendments to the U.S. Constitution,” “more than a third did not know the century in which the American Revolution took place,” and “half of the respondents believed the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation or the War of 1812 were before the American Revolution.” Oh, and “more than 50 percent of respondents attributed the quote ‘From each according to his ability to each according to his needs’ to either Thomas Paine, George Washington or Barack Obama.” 

Only 40 states require a history course to graduate high school. Only 15 require an examination. 

Historians may not want to admit it, but they bear some blame for the increasing irrelevance of their discipline. As historians Hal Brands and Francis Gavin argue on the national security site War on the Rocks, since the 1960s, history professors have retreated from public debate into their own esoteric pursuits. The push to emphasize “cultural, social and gender history,” and to pay “greater attention to the experiences of underrepresented and oppressed groups,” they write, has been a welcome corrective to an older historiography that focused almost entirely on powerful white men. But like many revolutions, this one has gone too far, leading to the neglect of political, diplomatic and military history — subjects that students need to study and, as enrollment figures indicate, students want to study but that universities perversely neglect. Historian Jill Lepore notes that we have ditched an outdated national narrative without creating a new one to take its place, leaving a vacuum to be filled by tribalists.

Students will learn what educators value. And if recent scores on national exams for history, geography, and civics are any indication, American educators are undervaluing the knowledge that young people will need to protect our political and civil institutions as adults.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) recently released its 2018 assessment results for eighth-grade students in civics, US history, and geography. The results are not encouraging: compared to scores from 2014, average scores on the geography and history exams in 2018 saw a statistically significant drop of three and four points, respectively. Average scores on the civics exam declined by one point. The average score on the NAEP history exam is at its lowest point since 2006, and the average score for geography is at its lowest point since the subject became a main segment of the assessment.

In addition to a decline in scores, the new NAEP scores also reveal a lack of proficiency in all three subjects. Roughly a quarter of all US students who took the test scored well enough to be labelled “proficient” or better in civics or geography. In history, only 15% scored at proficiency or better.

Another concern: the influence of postmodernist thought in much historical debate. In brief, it’s a notion borrowed from language theorists that no textual interpretation can be “privileged” above another. That, some historians say, might be fine for literature classes. But it’s disastrous in historical thinking and even more so in public life, where it presages the idea of “alternative facts,” to borrow a phrase that’s emerged in recent political discourse.

“Americans can argue over different interpretations because history and civic issues are complex, and there are different ways to think about them,” Wineburg said. “But the basis has to be an agreement of what constitutes facts.”

To become strong and productive members of society, students need a strong grasp of our country’s history, a deep understanding of our country’s system of government, and broader knowledge of the issues impacting the world. If educators wish to see a rise in proficiency in subjects like civics, they must dedicate time to these subjects.

History Teacher Throws Out Textbooks For Radical Marxist ‘History’ Book

by Evita Duffy

A young high school history teacher, named Annie, posted a TikTok video raving about Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” which she explains will be her new classroom textbook.

In her TikTok video, posted in the wake of the George Floyd riots, Annie explains she will no longer be using official textbooks in her classroom because they “omit a lot of the truth from our past.” Ironically, “A People’s History” is replete with factual omission to twist history in order to fit a narrative of American shame. For example, according to “A People’s History,” the American Revolution was waged in order to defeat “potential rebellions and create a consensus of popular support for the rule of a new, privileged leadership”. Civil War soldiers fighting to preserve the Union were deceived by “an aura of moral crusade” against slavery which “worked effectively to dim class resentments against the rich and powerful, and turn much of the anger against ‘the enemy.'”

Interestingly, Howard Zinn made no bones about his motivation and goals for writing “A People’s History.” Reputable historians attempt to teach history without being selective and misleading. Zinn on the other hand, openly admitted that he became a historian in order to inspire a social revolution, “I came to history with a very sort of modest objective, I wanted to change the world.”

Zinn’s young followers, who are consumers of his left-wing reinterpretation of the United States, see America as morally flawed. “If people knew history,” Zinn proclaimed, “they would scoff at the idea that the United States is a force for the betterment of humanity.” Unsurprisingly, the American left has enthusiastically embraced “A People’s History” and Zinn’s belief that the United States is, at its core, and from its inception, a sexist, racist, xenophobic, and bigoted nation. America, according to the left, is irredeemable, and her only hope is for a revolution that will fundamentally transform it.

Annie’s rejection of classic, credible history textbooks for overt leftist propaganda may seem shocking, but it is actually a perfect example of the new normal in the American education system. Stanford University School of Education Professor Sam Wineburg explains how “A People’s History” went from being a quirky outlier to the new accepted view of American history, “In the 32 years since its original publication, ‘A People’s History’ has gone from a book that buzzed about the ear of the dominant narrative to its current status where, in many circles, it has become the dominant narrative. For many students, ‘A People’s History’ will be the first full-length history book they read, and for some, it will be the only one.”

Annie stressed, “These people’s stories need to be heard. They need to be shared, because this is what built America and this is why we are the way we are.” In a way, it’s hard to argue with Annie. The fact that the Marxist-inspired “A People’s History” is the new standard in American History curriculum, is precisely the reason why we are the way we are in the summer of 2020. The race riots, destruction of historical monuments, the Pulitzer Prize winning 1619 Project, and the damaging notion of collective American guilt and specifically, white guilt, are all products of the Zinn narrative.

The culture of American shame composed by Howard Zinn has permeated pop culture inspiring disturbing videos of young, white people expressing shame for their race and accepting responsibility for the sins of America’s past. It’s even being embraced by corporate America, who has been a massive funder of the Black Lives Matter movement. This past week, Chik-fil-A’s CEO suggested that white Americans should shine the shoes of black Americans as atonement for America’s racist history.

The root of all this though, is in America’s teachers colleges which have been quietly radicalizing over the course of many decades. When Zinn wrote “A People’s History,” even he would be surprised by how quickly his ideas have been accepted and wholeheartedly embraced in American high schools and even elementary schools. Teachers, like Annie, are passing these distorted and politically-infused ideas of history to their students with little or no critical analysis or opposing points of view.

It will take a massive effort on the part of honest historians to undo the damage done by Howard Zinn and restore the truth about America’s founding, shortcomings and proud history as the architects of freedom and self-government.

Why Students Have Turned Away from History

by David Kaiser

In the 1970s and 1980s, when social history became fashionable, its practitioners sold it as an attempt to learn more about workers, peasants, and other less-visible social sectors that traditional political history had tended to slight. Feminists and nonwhite scholars picked up that ball and ran with it, arguing that they represented identities that white male historians had ignored, and whose voices now needed to be heard.

By the turn of the new century, even to study the political leadership of Western countries in detail had become suspect in history because it supposedly reinforced white male hegemony in society.

The long-term impact of those changes emerges when one looks at what historians do study today. The program of the last annual meeting of the American Historical Association lists 300 different panels on different historical topics. Only 15 of those 300—2.5 percent—deal with political history.

We must, however, look at those panels individually to understand what “political history” now means.

The sessions dealt with:
  • the funding of Sesame Street in the 1970s;
  • the authorship of Wikipedia articles about women’s suffrage in the US;
  • ideas of female monarchy in the Middle Ages;
  • the intellectual influence of the right after 1945 in various countries;
  • the recent immigrant rights movement in the US;
  • Fascist and Communist ideas of war during the Sino-Japanese conflict in the 1930s;
  • several populist episodes in recent American politics;
  • a panel discussion of historians and presidential misconduct;
  • various nonwhite feminist political movements;
  • a panel on the gender of power;
  • the politics of gun control;
  • women and religious liberty in early America;
  • a panel on writing the history of American conservatism under Donald Trump; and
  • human rights and state constitutions, 1796-1861.
In short, only three panels touched on major national issues in the US, and not a single one deals with a Western European political issue of any kind. None dealt with presidential leadership, the passage and impact of a major piece of legislation, or the origins, course, and results of war.

Because of this shift, we know much less about the politics and diplomacy of the last 40 years or so than we do about earlier periods. Whereas dozens of serious archival books had been written on the politics of the 1930s and 1940s by the time I was in graduate school, there are practically no serious studies of US political and diplomatic history since 1980 or so today.

Almost no one is either trained to write them or given a tenure-track job for having done so.

I had been teaching the history of warfare at the Naval War College for 16 years in 2006 when a political scientist at Williams College invited me to spend a year in a new chair in American diplomatic history that he had managed to create. I found later that when he initially floated his plans to the chair of the history department, she asked why he wanted to do that, since “that’s not what historians do anymore.”

Yet, during my year there, the courses I taught on the US and the two world wars and on Vietnam were extremely popular, and some students regretted that there were not more of them available.

Meanwhile, I saw the impact of the changes reflected in AHA programs on undergraduate curriculums. As departments became larger and faculty became more specialized, the distinction between undergraduate and graduate education was lost.

A historian of gender and sexuality in France (to select a random example that does not refer to a specific individual) offered undergraduate courses on gender and sexuality in France, without feeling any obligation to educate students about critical political events. Such courses predictably drew small enrollments, but faculty didn’t care.

At departmental lunches, I heard faculty report that their class had half a dozen students in them without a shred of embarrassment—much less any analysis of whether their contribution to teaching was earning their salary.

At one such meeting, a prominent faculty member plugged a talk by a visiting British historian about the significance of the powder puff in 1920s Britain. The talk was built around an arrest of a suspected gay man who was carrying a powder puff, and the presenter riffed on industrialization, consumerism, commodification, and transgressive sexuality.

A few days later I asked a student who had been there what he thought about it. He had more traditional historical interests, but he said that 90 percent of the history courses at Williams were of that type.

Now in retirement, I have embarked upon a new project: a political history of the United States based upon the inaugural addresses and State of the Union addresses of our presidents. I have been reminded that from Washington forward, American political leadership and the people saw themselves as conducting a great experiment in free, representative government, which might set an example for the world.

One doesn’t have to view American history uncritically or ignore our frequent failures to live up to our ideals to regard this story as a fascinating and inspiring one. Yet that is the story that most university history courses today choose to ignore, in favor of meditations that reflect the personal interests of the faculty rather than the needs or interests of the students.

That is why history and the humanities have lost the central place they occupied in our universities a half-century ago, and why they will have so much trouble regaining it.

Why schools have stopped teaching American history

“Don’t know much about history . . .,” goes the famous song. It’s an apt motto for the Common Core’s elementary school curriculum.

And it’s becoming a serious problem.

A 2014 report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that an abysmal 18 percent of American high school kids were proficient in US history. When colleges such as Stanford decline to require Western Civilization classes or high schools propose changing their curriculum so that history is taught only from 1877 onward (this happened in North Carolina), it’s merely a blip in our news cycle.

A 2012 story in Perspectives on History magazine by University of North Carolina professor Bruce VanSledright found that 88 percent of elementary school teachers considered teaching history a low priority.

The reasons are varied. VanSledright found that teachers didn’t focus on history because students aren’t tested on it at the state level. Why teach something you can’t test?

A teacher I spoke with in Brooklyn confirmed this. She said, “All the pressure in lower grades is in math and English Language Arts because of the state tests and the weight that they carry.”

She teaches fourth grade and says that age is the first time students are taught about explorers, American settlers, the American Revolution and so on. But why so late?

VanSledright also found that teachers just didn’t know enough history to teach it. He wrote there was some “holiday curriculum as history instruction,” but that was it.

Arthur, a father in Brooklyn whose kids are in first and second grade at what’s considered an excellent public school, says that’s the only kind of history lesson he’s seen. And even that’s been thin. His second-grade daughter knows George Washington was the first president but not why Abraham Lincoln is famous.

As the parent of a first-grader, I’ve also seen even the “holiday curriculum” in short supply. First grade might seem young, but it’s my daughter’s third year in the New York City public school system after pre-K and kindergarten. She goes to one of the finest public schools in the city, yet knows about George Washington exclusively from the soundtrack of the Broadway show “Hamilton.” She wouldn’t be able to tell you who discovered America.

So far, she has encountered no mention of any historical figure except for Martin Luther King Jr. This isn’t a knock on King, obviously. He’s a hero in our house. But he can’t be the sum total of historical figures our kids learn about in even early elementary school.

For one thing, how do we tell King’s story without telling the story of the Founding Fathers, the Constitution or of Abraham Lincoln? King’s protests were effective because they were grounded in the idea that America was supposed to be something specific, that the Constitution said so — and that we weren’t living up to those ideals.

The Brooklyn teacher I spoke with says instructors balk when it comes to history: They don’t want to offend anyone. “The more vocal and involved the parents are, the more likely the teacher will feel uncomfortable to teach certain things or say something that might create a problem.” Which leaves . . . Martin Luther King.

She cited issues around Thanksgiving, like teaching the story of pilgrims and the Native Americans breaking bread together as one that teachers might sideline for fear of parents complaining. Instead of addressing sticky subjects, we skip them altogether.

As colleges around the country see protests to remove Thomas Jefferson’s statues from their campuses, it’s becoming the norm to erase the parts of history that we find uncomfortable. It’s not difficult to teach children that the pilgrims or Thomas Jefferson were imperfect yet still responsible for so much that is good in America.

Jay Leno used to do a segment on his show called “JayWalking,” where he’d come up to people on the street and ask them what should’ve been easy historical questions. That their responses were funny and cringeworthy enough to get them on the show tells you how well it went.

Leno never asked the year the Magna Carta was published or when North Dakota became a state. He would ask what country we fought in the Revolutionary War, to name the current vice president or how many stars are on the American flag. And yet adults had no idea.

We talk often about how fractured our country has become. That our division increases while school kids are taught less and less about our shared history should come as no surprise.

My Own Brief Conclusion

There will always be debate and discourse over history, its methodology, what should be taught, how it should be taught, and who should teach it, among other things.

But when you watch an interview of college students (freshman) who can't tell you who won the Civil War, you have to cringe. 

From a postmodernist philosophical perspective, it is dangerous to teach history because events can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways. There is no "truth" or "facts." From my perspective, postmodernist philosophy is itself a dangerous outlook on the world, as there is no canonical narrative. How do you orient yourself to the world when anything is relative, nothing is real?

The teaching of history must be re-invented, and must be divorced from political viewpoints or ideology. While the teaching of dates and events can be a foundation, it must be taught and learned from a deep understanding of the context of events. Why did people do what they did? What lead them to create the worlds they inhabited in the past? How did they think? What was their worldview? How are these different from today? 

Only then can we know how to go forward. 

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