Los Angeles Politics

Opinion: When American students don’t understand history, what are democracy’s chances?

Most Americans don’t know which countries the United States fought against in World War II or when the U.S. Constitution was ratified. Good luck having them point to Ukraine on a map, much less Belarus. Watch them stare blankly if you ask who represents them in the state legislature or what rights are protected by the 1st Amendment.

There is nothing particularly new about this. As far back as April 4, 1943, the New York Times reported on its front page that college freshmen around the country showed “a striking ignorance of even the most elementary aspects of United States history.” Among other things, the paper reported that only 6% could name the 13 original states.

But the situation appears to be getting worse, not better. Between 2012 and 2019, the number of students majoring in history at colleges around the country dropped by about a third. Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Education reported a substantial drop in younger students’ knowledge of U.S. history and a less significant but still worrisome decline in civics knowledge as well.

Opinion Columnist

Nicholas Goldberg

Nicholas Goldberg served 11 years as editor of the editorial page and is a former editor of the Op-Ed page and Sunday Opinion section.

Just 13% of eighth-graders were deemed “proficient” in history, based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, an exam sometimes called “America’s report card.” Only 22% were found to be proficient in civics.

It’s “a national concern,” said Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, a part of the U.S. Department of Education. “Too many of our students are struggling … to understand and explain the importance of civic participation, how American government works and the historical significance of events.”

Some people don’t think it matters. They believe civics is unnecessary and history is just an ivory tower subject for pinheaded policy wonks and bespectacled academics. Surely what our kids need in high school and college, they say, are not abstract lessons in arcane facts, but skills that will put them on the path to jobs and productivity. Let’s hear it for accounting! Computer science! Nursing! Supply chain management! This is where education is going, no?

I utterly and emphatically hope not. History matters, as does an understanding of our government and how it works. Especially in times like these. We’re an increasingly polarized country in an increasingly globalized world — and only with informed and engaged citizens can a democracy like ours function.

Of course Americans could be forgiven for throwing up their hands in frustration as history, civics and social studies have become weaponized in the culture wars, with self-serving politicians jockeying to control what our kids are learning.

President Trump was the worst and, unsurprisingly, the most reductive of the offenders. As president he created a 1776 commission to do battle with the radicals and socialists he insists dominate our schools. Our children, he said, are being fed a “twisted web of lies” about the United States in which “the men and women who built it were not heroes, but rather villains.” He wants schools to teach “the magnificent truth about our country.”

That’s not history; that’s propaganda.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, for his part, apparently hopes to win Republican primary votes by provoking and heightening culture war divisions. That’s why he’s signed various “anti-woke” laws banning the teaching of gender identity and sexual orientation and barring lessons that might make people of a particular race — read: white people — feel guilt or discomfort for actions taken in the past by members of their race.

That’s not history; that’s politics.

Conservatives complain, meanwhile, that it’s the left that is bringing its bias to K-12 schools and colleges. One favorite example is the proposed draft ethnic studies curriculum in California that they, and others, found to be narrowly ideological, jargon-filled, anti-capitalist and generally politicized. (It’s since been rewritten.)

But putting aside for the moment who’s to blame, here’s my bottom line: Teachers shouldn’t be indoctrinating students in their classrooms with the politics of any single side — right, left or center.

Students should learn through discussion and debate, and be introduced to clashing interpretations and competing perspectives that challenge their preconceived points of view.

Was Thomas Jefferson a great democratic innovator and statesman even though he was a slaveholder — and can those ideas be reconciled? Is the United States the greatest and most robust democracy in the world or is democracy here on life support?

Why do we have so many statues to the Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee if the South lost the Civil War? Do World War I and World War II make the case for isolationism or engagement? Since the founding of the country, who’ve been more effective: reformers or radicals? Were the Black Panthers heroic freedom fighters or gun-toting extremists?

By all means, introduce students to the work of legitimate conservative historians, liberal historians and radical historians. Revisionists and counterrevisionists. Boosters and critics.

To what end? Not to persuade them that one point of view is correct (or to inundate them with mind-numbing facts), but to teach them the critical thinking skills that will help them wrestle their way to their own informed conclusions. To help them reject simplistic, ideology-driven bluster in favor of complexity, ambiguity and nuance.

The United States is at a crisis point. Elections are under fire, voting rights are at risk, book banning is spreading, the Supreme Court is losing credibility and a new reckoning is underway on race relations. The country is bitterly divided, climate change is bearing down and Americans on all sides are losing faith in government.

Now is when we need citizens who understand what is happening around them and who have a context and a framework in which to view the country, its principles, its successes and failures, and its place in the world. History and civics may sometimes seem abstract and irrelevant, but they matter.


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Joseph Hernandez

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