Monday, June 20, 2011

Yet Another Sign o' the Impending Apocalypse (An Occasional EIP Series)

'We're raising young people who are, by and large, historically illiterate," David McCullough tells me on a recent afternoon in a quiet meeting room at the Boston Public Library. Having lectured at more than 100 colleges and universities over the past 25 years, he says, "I know how much these young people—even at the most esteemed institutions of higher learning—don't know." Slowly, he shakes his head in dismay. "It's shocking."

He's right. This week, the Department of Education released the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress, which found that only 12% of high-school seniors have a firm grasp of our nation's history. And consider: Just 2% of those students understand the significance of Brown v. Board of Education

Mr. McCullough began worrying about the history gap some 20 years ago, when a college sophomore approached him after an appearance at "a very good university in the Midwest." She thanked him for coming and admitted, "Until I heard your talk this morning, I never realized the original 13 colonies were all on the East Coast." Remembering the incident, Mr. McCullough's snow-white eyebrows curl in pain. "I thought, 'What have we been doing so wrong that this obviously bright young woman could get this far and not know that?'"

Answer: We've been teaching history poorly. And Mr. McCullough wants us to amend our ways. 

Another problem is method. "History is often taught in categories—women's history, African American history, environmental history—so that many of the students have no sense of chronology. They have no idea what followed what."

What's more, many textbooks have become "so politically correct as to be comic. Very minor characters that are currently fashionable are given considerable space, whereas people of major consequence farther back"—such as, say, Thomas Edison—"are given very little space or none at all."
This topic has long been a hot-button here at EIP (yeah, I know: it's but one among many.  But that's what geezers DO, Gentle Reader).  I'll trot out my objections, rant, rave, and otherwise bemoan the woeful state of the citizenry's historical knowledge every danged time I take one of those current events and/or historical knowledge quizzes, and I've been doing so ever since we created EIP.  So, yeah: more o' the same.

That said, I'm SO very grateful that I received a decent high-school education, long before the advent of politically correct textbooks and the proliferation of This-And-That Studies.  Dead White Men had a lot of good things to say and I'm MOST grateful that educators of my youth realized that, and for the fact they insisted I learn those things.

So, at the risk of preaching to the very small but excellent choir here: RTWT.  All isn't lost, yet.  There's still hope as long as people like Mr. McCullough continue to speak out and people like YOU continue to listen.


  1. I most certainly do feel that pain. As you might surmise, however, the brutalization of the English language comes first on my list of Apocalyptic foreshadowings (and skin cringers), but that is closely followed by the trivialization/PC-ifying of history, American and otherwise.

    We are approaching Idiocracy.

  2. MissBirdlegs in AL20 June, 2011 17:37

    I've been horrified ever since I read that. Like you, I'm so grateful that I had good teachers and that history classes weren't just 'offered', but demanded. Most everyone in my family is a "History Nut", since our books, magazines & TV programs reflected our interest & our kids got into it very early. My oldest grandson is planning to be a history teacher. I sent him the article yesterday... ;-)

  3. What amazes me are the so-called bright ones who have no clue about geography... and don't care.

  4. You know how I feel about our public schools and their many failures, so I won't rant here. Parents seem to be clueless as to what their kids know and don't know. I feel myself sliding off into a rant. Toby and I were discussing this yesterday - how much money is pumped into education and yet how mediocre the education is. But thanks to big government and unions, very little will change.

  5. I'm with IT, but geography is so fluid these days . .. .

  6. Textbooks R US21 June, 2011 06:11

    I will get on my corporate textbook podium. ARGH!

    I have to admit my college professors were quite animated about the text books. Some of them gave out reading lists of books we had to read in order to even get above the guaranteed C grade.

    A movie that comes to mind is Robin Williams in the dead poets society, where he reads the forward of a text book, and of course calls it crap.

    My Political Science professor was similar. Do not bother buying the textbook he said, it is pure sh*t, and you will dirty your brain just feeling the ink on the pages...

  7. I could most certainly join you in a few hours of rant.

    I remember when I ran for state rep in MA, almost 20 years ago. After a stump speech, a twenty-something young man engaged me in conversation. During the course of our talk, he said something about the 52 states. I thought he was joking, so I laughed. He got this bewildered look, so I then knew he had been serious. I gently corrected him. He wasn't insulted to learn, which is a good thing, but it still amazes me that anyone could possibly be that ignorant.

  8. We are approaching Idiocracy.

    Sigh. Too true, Moogie.

    I sent him the article yesterday...

    I'm a full day behind in my reading, Katy. Good on your grandson!

    Ivan: Yeah, Americans are geographical idiots, among other things.

    Lou: You may rant here at ANY time!

    Moogie II: I hear that. Especially in Africa, where I kinda sorta gave up on the country names during the '60s.

    Textbooks: We're on the same page. They suck.

  9. Jim: We were commenting together but separate. I can be charitable towards ignorance on some days but it mostly just pisses me off. I wouldn't make a good pol.

  10. The dummying down of studies starts long before the college level is reached. Thanks to "No Child Left Behind" and we all know the "Rest of the Story!"

  11. Scooney, Dummying down started way before "No Child Left Behind." That was just the buzz phrase for "don't fail any students, or we could be sued" and "No discipline either," which were both in place before Bush.

  12. Well said, Lou. I agree.


Just be polite... that's all I ask.