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Why Americans don't know history

I meant to post something about this interview when it appeared over the weekend, but internet problems got in the way.  Anyway, famed popular historian David McCullough correctly identifies some of the reasons why Americans don't know their history--unprepared teachers, politically correct textbooks, uninspired classroom methods.  There's a problem that he overlooks, however.  He seems to assume that if more teachers graduated with degrees in history rather than pedagogy there would be an improvement in the population's historical knowledge.  Given what goes on in many university history departments, that may not be the case. 

For years the emphasis in undergraduate history teaching has been on method, rather than content.  That is, students are expected to learn to become historians, rather than to know history.  For example, I was an undergraduate at Ohio University, and had to take a research methods course that went through, in excruciating detail, all of the different reference works with which we needed to be familiar in order to track down sources that we might need to write a scholarly paper.  This course was ultimately useless even for me, since within ten years the internet had made all of those reference works obsolete.  How much more useless was the course for the vast majority of those who took it with me--who, unlike me, did not go on to graduate school?

I was lucky, though, in the sense that most of the faculty at Ohio University were of the old school that understood that, when it comes to historical knowledge, some historical facts are more important than others.  The real danger of emphasizing method over content is that everything eventually becomes equally important.  If, after all, history is only about imparting research methods, communication skills, and (my personal favorite) "critical thinking," then why should some professor whose research interests involve the construction of gender in Massachusetts during the late 1770s be troubled to teach a course on the American Revolution?  Every course could be built around the current research of the individual faculty--and you'd have something like the history curriculum as it exists at most elite institutions of higher learning today. 

With all due respect to Mr. McCullough, if that's the way that history is being taught, it's not clear to me that prospective teachers are any worse off taking education courses.

Categories > Education

Discussions - 7 Comments

Why Americans don't know history

Easy. The majority of Americans attend public schools were political correctness, sex eduction (all kinds of sex), taxing the rich, Marxism, anti-Christian theology and that Americans have caused all the wars, poverty and unhappiness in the world is taught. Obviously nothing of any substance, just horse hockey.

Simple solution - School Choice. It is like being pro-choice or pro-life - it is a choice. If you want to send your kid to the stupid school have at it. If I want my kid to get education that will help him make good choices in his life and enrich his life with knowledge, then I can pick the smart school for him to attend.

Liberals love freedom, so that should love my solution. Correct?

These are good points, John, and you are correct to emphasize the lack of ability to distinguish between the essential and the tangential. This is evident in the history curriculum on offer at most elementary schools--whether they be public or private. But this does have a great deal to do with the textbooks and the state standards--which, as you know too well--are often written by folks who utterly lack the ability to distinguish between important and tangential and, moreover, think there is something fundamentally immoral about trying to make such distinctions.

But I still think McCullough's essential point is a good one and that is that most history teachers, books, and curricula are so devoid of any sense of wonder or love for their subject that they do not inspire the student to even an elementary sense of curiosity about it. I could never understand it when I was confronted with a bad teacher of history. How can you make the eternal soap opera that is history boring? It seems to me that it almost takes a special talent for being boring to do it . . . and yet, it is ubiquitous! There should be a special ring of fire for these teachers in payment of the debt of their crime. But they are almost too pathetic to inspire that much wrath, I suppose.

Americans are as dumb as dirt across the board, not just in history. Why? Well, for some of the reasons already mentioned, but also because of the gale-force headwind of DISTRACTION. They have been fed a steady diet of cultural pablum their whole lives (e.g., reality TV, beauty pagents, pop music), and it has been forced down their gullets very efficiently with TV, cell phones, the Internet, and movies. The poor things have forgotten how to concentrate, and of course they never even learned how to discriminate truth from utter BS.

Now of course, there is a substratum of Americans who are intelligent, knowing their history and math as well, but they are a distinct minority. This situation of increasingly ignorant Americans makes me sad, but we are bringing it on ourselves.

"They have been fed a steady diet of cultural pablum their whole lives (e.g., reality TV, beauty pagents, pop music..."

Interesting point. Do note this:

and this:

as well as the King of Righty Blogs, Powerline (Steve Hayward's other blogging home) and their singular obsession with beauty pageants (also, note the spelling of pageant).

Yes, Craig, I agree with you. I would never post beautiful women on this blog.

The POINT (now pay attention, you'll like this) is that our market economy panders to the lowest common denominator, as some conservative economists (e.g., Wilhelm Ropke) anticipated. Liberty and free markets are no substitute for moral order, in short, which is just one of the reasons I'm not a libertarian. Liberty without discipline (which is both socially- and individually-enforced) leads to social and moral decay.

You may now crawl back into your hole, Craig.

I have no idea if you're being sincere or sarcastic with your first sentence there, but it doesn't matter.

I was just pointing it out. If you find the "steady diet of cultural pablum [...] (e.g., reality TV, beauty pagents, pop music)" - which would seem to include pics of beauty pageant contestants/winners and bikini chicks - such as this(yet another example = note the blog=post remarks):

to be a problem, then it would seem only fair to acknowledge the part that NLT - a blog from an unabashedly conservative academic institution, after all - has played in that steady diet of pablum. Unless of course, you just object to that pablum when it comes through media that don't try to maintain a veneer of stuffy, dignified nobility. "Bikini pics are fine, as long as they're put between analyses of Jaffa and Buckley, with a picture of Abraham Lincoln somewhere else on the page."

I don't like it when NLT glorifies beauty pageants, etc., but I think this is done to distance themselves from the humorless Left. Schramm and company are reminding us that they are human and subject to all the vicissitudes of the flesh. It's their way of "keeping it real." But I know this is lost on the likes of you.

Another example of this is how Rush Limbaugh apparently aggrandizes himself on the air (excellence in broadcasting, etc.). I think it's his way of defying the false piety and pseudo-selflessness you find on the extreme Left. All in good fun, but with an important ulterior meaning, Again, lost on you.

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