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Posts Tagged ‘ignorance’

Don’t Know Much About History…

In books, children, culture, education, History, journalism, Medicine, politics, world on June 22, 2011 at 1:12 pm
Edith Cummings was the first woman athlete to ...

Athlete Edith Cummings, the first woman to appear on Time's cover. Image via Wikipedia

American students, it seems, are not terribly well-educated when it comes to their country’s history.

This, from the Boston Globe:

Not even a quarter of American students is proficient in US history, and the percentage declines as students grow older. Only 20 percent of 6th graders, 17 percent of 8th graders, and 12 percent of high school seniors demonstrate a solid grasp on their nation’s history. In fact, American kids are weaker in history than in any of the other subjects tested by the NAEP — math, reading, science, writing, civics, geography, and economics.

And here’s historian David McCullough on the same issue, from a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal:

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.”

Mr. McCullough’s eyebrows leap at his final point: “And they’re so badly written. They’re boring! Historians are never required to write for people other than historians.” Yet he also adds quickly, “Most of them are doing excellent work. I draw on their excellent work. I admire some of them more than anybody I know. But, by and large, they haven’t learned to write very well.”

I really enjoy reading history, and have for years. As a geeky only child with little or no access to TV, reading was one of my pleasures, and one of my favorite books ( I can see your eyes rolling!) at the age of maybe 12 was a history of medicine. OMG!

It was soooooooo cool: Galen and Hippocrates and Semmelweiss and Harvey and Jenner….all giants who made our lives safer.

Semmelweiss is my favorite, the man who in the mid-1800s discovered that women were dying after giving birth because surgeons — !!! — were not washing their hands between patients.

Some of my favorite books in the past few years have been histories:  Roy Porter’s social history of 18th. century London; different histories of Paris (there were icebergs in the Seine once many centuries ago!); of Elizabeth I, and all the Western women’s history I read while researching my first book, about women and guns.

Did you know that entire chunks of the American West were homesteaded exclusively by women? Glenda Riley is one of my favorite historians for this topic, with 11 books (so far.)

I love Vincent Cronin’s writing; he’s a British historian who died this year at the age of 86.

And yet…I remain woefully ignorant of Canadian history (where I was born and raised) and not great either on U.S. history (although I know some of the players, like Col. Andre [captured about 200 feet from my town library!] or the Roebling family, who designed and built the Brooklyn Bridge.)

I admit it — much classic “history” — written and edited by men about men, focused on economic, military and political issues — bores the bejeezus out of me. I want to hear about women and kids and clothing and science and medicine and what they read and ate. Call it “social history” but I want to feel, smell, hear and taste what everyday life was like, not just the Treaty of This and the War of That.

What sort of history — if any — do you know best and why?

What would be a better way for American kids to learn and really care about their own history?

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