Don’t Know Much About History…

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?

9 thoughts on “Don’t Know Much About History…

  1. Lisa (Woman Wielding Words)

    I love history too. For a while I immersed myself in all things British, but I also would read about the Holocaust or the Greeks. Now my tastes wander wherever the whim takes me. I also read a lot of historical fiction, because it brings characters to life while still providing (we hope) true historical backdrops.

    When I was in 10th grade I had a social studies teacher who allowed us to create a living chess tournament with the players being characters from the War of the Roses. While I don’t remember anything about them now, the power of that learning stayed with me for a very long time. History should not be taught for rote memorization of facts to spit back on test forms, it should be taught as stories of people who lived, breathed, loved, fought, and died.

    1. “History should not be taught for rote memorization of facts to spit back on test forms, it should be taught as stories of people who lived, breathed, loved, fought, and died.”

      That says it all!

      Journalism is described as the first draft of history. However grandiose, it has always made me proud of my role in this and makes me realize that my words and observations may, indeed, be of use to future historians. I think much of the awful writing we see is because traditional journalism is so bloodless and traditional academic writing done to please committees — not to engage and enthrall readers!

      We are all the poorer as a result.

  2. crgardenjoe

    Somehow, I think the history textbooks, written, as you note, to please committees, take all the drama and suspense out of real life–which is frustrating because history is full of drama and suspense. I recently finished reading “The Devil in the White City,” and even as a fan of fiction, can’t imagine that a novel set in the 19th Century would compete with the true story of a serial killer at the Chicago World’s Fair. Anyway, I think knowledge of history is tied into a matrix of other types of declining knowledge–such as literature or geography–that seem to contemporary minds to reflect dull, text-based learning. And I think part of the problem is that many teachers are products of a post-literate culture–but the primary troublesome trend is that too many kids grow up surrounded by electronic gadgetry, but with few readily accessible books. I’m glad my old-fashioned Hungarian father insisted on reading to us kids and that my Irish mother had a life-long obsession with mystery novels–it meant the house was full of dead, dried trees. Anyway, history should be an automatically fascinating topic, it’s the story of why things are they way they are, and, despite dull texts, it’s a bit of a mystery to me why ignorance of history should be so common and commonly excused. And I don’t mean the gotha, trivia, who was Lincoln’s vice president kind of knowledge of history–but I encounter college students who can’t name the decade of the Civil War, tell you in broad terms what it was about or recognize that it preceded World War I. Every time I use the term “Balkanized” to describe today’s media landscape, I have to explain what “Balkan” is and a bit of the role of the Balkan Peninsula in shaping world events. That’s a shame.

    1. This is downright scary!

      It’s one reason I try to reference historical precedent in as many of my articles as possible…

      My favorite fact in “Malled” is that in 1892 (!) Woolworth declared that his store clerks should not expect to earn a living wage as his business model did not allow for it…! Not Sam Walton, Woolworth. Every business writer should know this; unbridled capitalism has been screwing these workers for centuries. Without any notion of precedent, how can we measure (if there is any) our progress?!

  3. So many people in recent years really like memoirs/autobiographies or biographies. I enjoy reading stories about other people lives; thier histories, their views about the times they lived.
    I never found history taught in school as interesting.

    1. That’s my point…

      “History” is made up of all these amazing people who had quirky and interesting lives, filled with detail and color — that we never learn about in school! I discovered, for example, when researching Blown Away, that Annie Oakley and Martha Stewart had a surprising number of commonalities: 1) both born in Nutley, NJ; 2) both born into very poor and chaotic familiies 3) both made huge fortunes, partly as a reaction to these childhoods 4) both ended up hugely famous but frequently attacked for their high profiles…Hearst decided to slander (!) Oakley in a pile of his newspapers and she had to take years away from her shooting career to fight them (and win.)

  4. You might enjoy the latest book by Bill Bryson, “At Home: A Short History of Private Life.” It’s a very interesting take on how our daily lives came to be as he goes room to room in his home and how the social fabric changed as a result. He focuses mainly on UK and US because that’s his audience. Bryson is quite witty. A great read.

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