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August 19th, 2011
10:15 AM ET

Can teaching more history now prevent repeating the past?

 By Dave Schechter

CNN Senior National Editor

Not long after moving to Atlanta nearly 24 years ago, my mother came to visit. I drove her out to Stone Mountain to see its enormous bas relief of three heroes of the Confederate States of America: Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. We rode the train that winds around the enormous, 825-foot-tall rock and listened to a recording about its history. At some point my mother, an Iowa native whose graduate degree in history is from an Ivy League university, asked me, in a conversational voice, “Don’t these people know they lost that war?” I shushed my mother and whispered, “No they don’t!”

Growing up north of Chicago,  in Illinois, in the “Land of Lincoln,” my teachers referred to that conflict as the Civil War. Living in the South, I’ve heard it referred to more than once as “the war against Northern aggression.” And what I was taught was a war primarily fought over the issue of slavery is viewed by some Southerners as having had more to do with economics and states rights, animosities still playing out today.

I tell this story to make a few points about teaching history. Results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that in 2010 fewer than one-quarter of American schoolchildren in grades 4, 8 and 12 were classified as “proficient” in their knowledge of U.S. and world history.

Earlier this year, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute published a discouraging review of standards for teaching history in each of the 50 states’ public schools: “The results of this rigorous analysis paint a bleak picture: A majority of states’ standards are mediocre-to-awful. In fact, the average grade across all states is barely a D. In twenty-eight  jurisdictions — a majority of U.S. states — the history standards earn Ds or below. Eighteen earn Fs. . . . Just one state — South Carolina — has standards strong enough to earn a straight A. The Palmetto State deserves praise for having brought the necessary focus, rigor, and innovation to this essential element of a comprehensive education. . . . Six other states — Alabama, California, Indiana, Massachusetts, New York, and the District of Columbia — earn A-minuses, and three more received grades in the B range. Bravo for them. But this also means that just ten jurisdictions — not even one in five — get honors marks for grounding their standards in real history and avoiding the worst of the temptations, pitfalls, and neglect that prevail across most of the land.”

The Fordham Institute report was critical of an “under-emphasis on history in K-12.” This at a time when the No Child Left Behind act has forced the nation’s public schools to put greater emphasis on making sure students are proficient in mathematics and reading. In other words, “Since learning history doesn’t really count, schools devote less and less instructional time to it,” citing an analysis of federal data that “suggests that elementary schools spend a paltry 7.6 percent of their total instructional time on social studies, of which history is only one part — and often a distressingly small part.”

Why is this important? Because it’s hard not to repeat the mistakes of history if you don’t know the history to begin with.

Those who followed last year’s debate in Texas over which historical figures and themes should receive more (or less) attention in textbooks or this year’s controversy over teaching of gay and lesbian history in California schools know that whose or what history is taught can be a contentious issue, regardless of one’s political leanings. In an increasingly multicultural America, various racial, ethnic and religious groups can be expected to advocate for greater inclusion in textbooks and teaching plans. Latinos  in Texas felt that the history of their growing community merited greater attention in the state’s public school curriculum. In the African-American community there is sentiment that designating a month (February) to black history may help to perpetuate a sense of segregation within American society.

History was one of my favorite subjects, but I have been surprised over the years to learn about events omitted from my education in what was considered an excellent public school system.

Among those, I did not learn in school about the 1918 flu pandemic that killed tens of millions of people around the globe. I stumbled on that more than 20 years ago while reading a publication for World War I veterans.

I was fascinated a few years ago by a film that acquainted me with the 1914-1916 expedition of the British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton; a heroic, albeit failed attempt to cross the Antarctic continent, in which 28 men survived nearly two years in frigid conditions when their ship became stranded in the ice.

Okay, that item might be a bit esoteric for an American public school education, but this also was overlooked: Back in the 1930s and early 1940s somewhere between 1 million and 2 million people – by some estimates more than half of whom were children born in the United States- were forcibly removed from the United States and sent to Mexico. I learned about this when a new law took effect in Illinois a couple of years ago, requiring that this piece of history be taught in the state’s public schools – including the same schools where I was a student many years ago.

soundoff (5 Responses)
  1. June Clendening

    First comes reading and writing and math. But learning the history of this great nation is primary for this country's advancement and protection. We have only to look at the tragedies taking place in the Middle East. If they were all educated in their history, they might learn about our history and peace could prevail.

    August 19, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
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