America's story: Why failing to teach history is bad for democracy

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

A few years ago, the National Constitution Center surveyed teenagers and found that while only about four in 10 could name the three branches of the federal government fully six in 10 could name all Three Stooges.

Everyone agrees we aren't teaching history well, but the direction of reform is controversial. Philadelphia's public schools have just announced they will mandate that all students take an African-American history course in order to graduate from high school. The theory is that the city's 185,000 public school students, two-thirds of whom are black, will finally become aware of their culture and gain self-esteem. Those who are not black will gain an appreciation of black history that is inadequately covered in current general social studies courses.

John Perzel is the GOP speaker of the Pennsylvania House and represents a largely white Philadelphia district. He isn't so sure this is the right approach. "I would like to see [students] master basic reading, writing and arithmetic," he wrote to city officials last week. "Once we have them down pat, I don't care what they teach ... . They should understand basic American history before we go into African-American history." Other critics note that schools already put on programs every February for Black History Month, something not done for other ethnic groups. They fear a separate course will diminish student understanding of the overall American experience. Back in the 1960s, novelist James Baldwin testified before Congress that the triumphs and tribulations of black history should be woven into all history courses, rather than segregated. Diane Ravitch, a leading education reformer, agrees that African-American history should be studied but hopes it will be "based on the best scholarship, not ideology or politics." Dream on. What's more likely to happen is that the creation of a specific African-American history course will fuel demands from other groups, such as Hispanics or gays, for similar history mandates.

What will slip further down a memory hole will be the major reason why it is important for students to study our history: America is an exceptional country in that we were born out of a shared set of ideas -- human liberty and opportunity, accompanied by a common set of values. It is often said that while being a Frenchman or German is bound up in ethnicity and ties to the soil, it is possible to become an American by adopting this nation's creed and beliefs.

We are risking something very basic by failing to communicate the basic ideals of America and instead, as historian David McCullough told me, "raising a generation of students who are historically illiterate." But many of those students will eventually become curious, and without a solid grounding in the past, they could easily fall prey to revisionist history, whether it be of the Confederate or Oliver Stone variety.

Yale professor David Gelernter says that "ignorance of history is destroying our judgment." He points to Sen. Dick Durbin's ignorant comment comparing the actions of U.S. personnel at Guantanamo Bay to those of Nazis and Soviets. His remarks went largely unremarked upon by fellow senators until talk radio made them an issue. Future leaders may make even more horrific missteps: a 2003 survey of seniors at the top 55 liberal arts colleges found that over half thought Germany, Italy or Japan had been a U.S. ally in World War II. The concern about historical amnesia crosses the political spectrum.

Bill Moyers, the liberal PBS pundit, has said "we Americans seem to know everything about the last 24 hours but very little of the last 60 centuries or the last 60 years."

When Ronald Reagan delivered his 1989 farewell address to the nation, he noted there was "a great tradition of warnings in presidential farewells," and he would make no exception. He told his audience that the "one that's been on my mind for some time" was that the country was failing to adequately teach our children the American story and what it represents in the history of the world. "We've got to teach history based not on what's in fashion, but what's important," he said. "If we forget what we did, we won't know who we are. I am warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit."

As well-meaning as Philadelphia's attempt to raise the self-esteem of black students may be, we should take time this coming Fourth of July to realize that our failure to teach America's story demands far more strenuous solutions.

John Fund is a Wall Street Journal columnist.

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