History a Mystery to American Youth

Published December 1, 2002

A Harvard educator who wants to awaken America’s young to the inspiring power of heroism in American history has found that schools and the culture instead give students a “sour and suspicious” view of their national heritage.

The radically revisionist mindset that permeates education is ultimately damaging to young people, Peter Gibbon commented at a recent American Enterprise Institute forum moderated by AEI senior fellow Lynne V. Cheney, the nation’s Second Lady.

“First, it makes them ashamed of their past and pessimistic about the future,” said Gibbon, a Harvard Graduate School of Education researcher who recently authored A Call to Heroism: Renewing America’s Vision of Greatness.

“Second, it implies that we are superior to our ancestors and encourages attitudes of ingratitude and self-righteousness.

“Third, by repudiating the notion that one person can make a difference, it makes young people dismissive of greatness.

“And, finally, attributing all progress to social and economic forces fosters historic fatalism. Concentrating on the dark side can lead young people to conclude that the world is a hopeless place.”

Lincoln Presented as a Racist

Gibbon told of a History Channel series that characterized Benjamin Franklin as a skirt-chaser and John Adams as a person who should have been on Prozac. Gibbon recalled being excoriated during visits to high schools for making positive comments about Abraham Lincoln, whom students condemned as a “racist,” and Andrew Jackson, who was considered to have no redeeming qualities because of his campaign to force Native Americans to move west.

In place of such relentless fault-finding, Gibbon advocated a “moderate triumphalism” that would admit mistakes America has made, yet look for heroism in all corners of the American past. Such an approach, he said, “would not automatically denigrate heroes of the past because they were privileged or powerful, because they thought or explored, or because they did not surmount every prejudice of their time.”

Mrs. Cheney organized the forum to consider two questions: “Why is U.S. history still a mystery to our children?” and “What should they know about America’s past?” It was held in the context of such findings as the following:

  • The most recent round of National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) testing found only one in 10 high school seniors proficient at grade level in knowledge of history.
  • A 2000 study by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (“Losing America’s Memory”) found an appalling level of ignorance of basic American history among graduating seniors at highly selective colleges like Harvard, Williams, Pomona, and Chicago. For instance, 37 percent of randomly selected seniors thought Ulysses S. Grant was an American General at the Battle of Yorktown, while only 34 percent placed George Washington at that decisive Revolutionary War battle.

Shallow and Confused Textbooks

Looking at causes, Wilfred M. McClay, professor of history at the University of Tennessee/Chattanooga and author of The Student’s Guide to U.S. History, was highly critical of the quality of textbooks. While the movement toward greater emphasis on content in history instruction is positive, he said, there must be equal concern with the form in which the content appears.

“Students can be saddled with required textbooks that contain all the requisite names, dates, concepts, documents, and the like, but there is no reason to believe that they’ll remember anything from this experience unless the books in question do what textbooks almost never do, and that is provide a compelling, narrative context within which the factoids can begin to take on life.

“Instruction in history would make a quantum leap forward if we simply banned the typical American textbook with all its false omniscience and phony neutrality, its confused and jumbled narrative line, its shallow and derivative analysis, its endless sidebars and dizzy designs and overly clever graphics, and its anxious bows in the direction of state textbook committees and various forms of political correctness left and right.”

In lieu of textbooks, McClay proposed students read “real books by real authors with a real point of view, a winning writing style, and a story to tell.” That’s essential to teaching history as a compelling narrative, he said. However, McClay also argued for teaching students the fundamentals of history, and several members of the audience–among them, textbook authors–argued that a good basic textbook is helpful in that regard.

Poorly Prepared Teachers

Other scholars called for sweeping reform of teacher education.

David Warren Saxe, a professor of teacher education at Penn State and a consultant to a dozen states in writing standards for teaching history, said “it makes no sense for a state government to require strong history standards for children but make no demands on teacher educators to prepare those teachers training to deliver that same content.”

Most supposedly qualified K-12 history teachers do not have a minor, much less a major, in American history, Saxe noted. Instead, the average U.S. history teacher is certified in social studies, a hodgepodge of a half-dozen subjects.

“God loves America’s teachers,” said Saxe, “but the breadth of such mile long and inch deep training is absurd. We cannot expect teachers to deliver on high-quality standards without a strong academic background.” He said teacher certification should be removed from interest groups like the National Council for the Social Studies and returned to accountable government authorities. Moreover, would-be teachers of history should have to gain and demonstrate academic competence in the subject.

Disengaged Students

Jesus Garcia, professor of education at the University of Kentucky and vice president of the National Council for the Social Studies, identified “student disengagement with schools” as a major problem, citing as an example a report that 20 percent of New York City students had failed to attend school during a recent two-week period.

Garcia said the teachers he knows “are people who love history and social science, and they continue to read. But I think one place where we [teacher educators] need to work much harder is on pedagogy, offering [teaching] students a variety of skills that will help them engage students.”

Gibbon noted the quality of teaching is “uneven.” In addition, “total student loads are high, planning periods rare, mentoring haphazard, pay low, second jobs common. The most precise standards, the most sophisticated curriculum, the most rigorous test cannot make up for poorly prepared, demoralized teachers.”

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

An unedited transcript of the Cheney forum is available through PolicyBot. Point your Web browser to http://www.heartland.org, click on the PolicyBot icon, and search for document #10737.