American history education is comprised mostly of disjointed, unimportant personal anecdotes, dates of battles and numbers killed. Cause and effect are barely touched upon. I can see why kids think, “Booooring!”
(11-17-2015- updated 07-14-2018) The average American’s lack of history knowledge and insight has always boggled my mind. When I went back to college to pursue a degree in literature in the Rio Grande Valley, I had to take a summer course in World History. Five weeks. Because having spent five years on it in my Dutch high school didn’t count. Five weeks of facts, and not even that many, because the class included world geography. It was one of the most pathetic courses I took during those years, and I thought this was why Americans knew nothing about history. Five weeks to teach world history to a group of students with the base knowledge of middle-schoolers.
It certainly is part of the problem, but not all of it. My daughter was in a progressive college prep school in Austin in sixth grade when she had a year of American history. It started with the first European colonists and ended at the end of the Civil War. For various reasons, I had to help her intensively with this class, so I knew exactly what she learned that year. Nothing.
It was one long, brain-numbing series of what I consider to be anecdotal history, the least important facts about American history. The teacher did spend a lot of time on the Civil War and on slavery, which is more than many schools do, witness all the folks in the South claiming the rebel flag has nothing to do with slavery. However, the vast majority of the time she spent on the Civil War she focused on which battle happened when, how many soldiers died and who won, and what seems like every, single, fricking, document written by the government during that time.
Very little, if anything, about what led up to the Civil War, the different viewpoints; the progress of the war in broad strokes; how opinions changed or how folks got more entrenched; what changed after the war, what didn’t; and most important of all, how the Civil War affects people still.
The material was so incredibly abstract and boring and irrelevant that all I have to do is mention the word ‘history” and my daughter practically has an anxiety attack. She wants nothing to do with it ever again. This at a school where the teachers constantly sought ways to make their classes more interesting, finding new materials and meaningful homework projects. But the state prescribes this material for sixth-graders, so it has to be covered.
It also amazes me is how–mostly conservative–talk show hosts throw about terms like socialism, fascism and communism in a context that indicates they have no idea what these words actually mean. And many conservatives believe colleges are full of damn liberals, which is part of a larger attitude of anti-intellectualism.
Because of the poor quality of American history education, America is rife with myths posing as history. The notion that the confederate flag has nothing to do with slavery is just one of them. So many people truly believe that America was founded as a Christian country; apparently they get the pilgrims and the founding fathers confused. (I will get into the pilgrim story in a separate post about Thanksgiving.) Ronald Reagan is revered as one of the best presidents ever. I don’t think you can say of any president that he was all great. Certainly, some did more good than others, but all of them also did things that at best were pretty darn controversial. Ronald Reagan definitely did his share of the latter.
When I started working in libraries in this country (I worked in a children’s library and two school libraries) I noticed the huge number of historical biographies. They start at a first-grade reading level; books about George Washington, Thomas Edison, Abraham Lincoln, Helen Keller, etc. In fact, most of the history books in these libraries were biographies. I’ve never understood that. Endless numbers of books with endless anecdotes about individuals’ childhoods, how great they were, how they overcame challenges, blah blah blah.
Not that these people didn’t do interesting stuff or that they didn’t overcome challenges, but they didn’t live in vacuums. How did they fit into the narrative of their times? That’s never clear — biographies are arranged alphabetically. Kids end up getting this disjointed sense of the past, with snippets of knowledge here and there, and often they end up without even a clear sense of a history timeline. Just ask the average high school graduate when World War Two took place. Or the Vietnam War. You’d be lucky if some of them could even place these events in the correct century. Ask them about George Washington and the most detailed account you’d get would probably be about a cherry tree he chopped down as a kid and that he couldn’t lie about it. Or was that Abraham Lincoln? The point is: who the hell cares? Chopping down a cherry tree and either lying or not lying about it is not how these men impacted American history.
Why is American history education such a problem in schools? Why do kids graduate high school with so little knowledge of history, let alone any meaningful knowledge, like insight into causes and effects? I just finished James W. Loewen‘s book Lies My Teacher Told Me. It explains everything about high school history education in America in jaw-dropping detail. Stay tuned.
(This post was first published on the blog Resident Alien: Being Dutch in America, under the title: “What Passes for History Here”, 11-17-2015)
Header image: mine