|History - it was what it was, warts and all
|"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be." — Thomas Jefferson
Warning: this week's Soapbox might be a little depressing.
A while back, I received a press release from a small college in Michigan which told of how Mount Vernon's curator had taken an unofficial poll of teenagers touring George Washington's home.
When the curator asked students what they knew about George Washington, the two most common answers were that he owned slaves and that he is the "dude on the dollar bill."
That would be funny if it wasn't so sad.
This sent me scrambling back into the Soapbox archives to find mention of an article a few years back about a test given by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA). The group polled 556 students from the "Top 25 Liberal Arts Colleges," that year, as listed by U.S. News & World Report. The test posed 34 questions relating to American history, government and culture, based on high school history texts.
Only two percent of the students got an "A," four percent a "B," and 13 percent a "C." Two-thirds of the students failed the test by scoring 59 percent or less.
Keeping in mind that the test was multiple choice, let's look at some of the findings:
·Only 34 percent of the students knew that Washington was the American General in command at Yorktown, the culminating battle of the American Revolution. More students (37 percent) thought U.S. Grant was the answer.
·Only 42 percent could Washington as "First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen."
· Only 38 percent of students asked to identify the lowest point in American fortunes in the Revolutionary War correctly answered Valley Forge.
·Only 22 percent were able to identify "Government of the people, by the people, for the people" as a line from the Gettysburg Address.
·Over one-third were unable to identify the U.S. Constitution as establishing the division of power in American government.
·Several students identified Ben Franklin as the second President of the United States.
·24 percent of those surveyed thought the Magna Carta was the charter signed by the Pilgrims on the Mayflower.
·When given a range of 50 years to pinpoint the American Civil War, only 60 percent knew that it happened between 1850 and 1900.
·Only 26 percent were able to correctly identify the Emancipation Proclamation as the document freeing slaves in the Confederate states not under Union control during the Civil War.
Please note that the questions which were aced on the test were:
·Who are Beavis and Butthead? This was correctly answered by 99 percent of the students.
·Who is (rapper) Snoop Doggy Dogg? This was correctly answered by all but one student who thought it was a character from the Peanuts comic strip.
ACTA then followed the test up by checking out the requirements of 50 institutions from among the Big 10, Big 8, Ivy League and "Seven Sisters" institutions.
They found only seven of the 50 colleges required even one history or government course — and none required an American history course. We are talking about schools such as Amherst, Brown, Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, Dartmouth, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Stanford, Yale, and ironically, Washington and Lee University.
Part of the problem is not just the low value placed on American history by these so-called fine institutions. It seems that in the last 15 years, it has become much more important to revise history and tear down American icons than it is to study and teach what these men and women accomplished.
Think that's just some Conservative bunk?
Take up Thomas Jefferson. More weight and study is given these days to trying to prove that he allegedly fathered a child by a slave than what the man accomplished as a Founding Father, President and inventor. People don't want to talk about Ben Franklin's genius as much as they do his lady friends. Even Washington has been reduced to the slaveholding dude on the dollar bill.
It doesn't have to be this way. Professor Ed Holloway was the finest history instructor you could sit for at Atlantic Christian College a decade ago. He's been cited in this space many times. A Connecticut Yankee, he was a master at giving both sides of an issue, analyzing it, and forcing students to draw their conclusions. He was particularly good at this concerning the Civil War, especially as taught to a group of Southerners from another point of view.
But, what Mr. Holloway never did was try to promote a political agenda or change history. As he might would say, it was what it was, warts and all. That's why it's history.
And despite where it seems some schools are headed with it, it's every bit as important as reading, writing and arithmetic.
"If you want to destroy a country, destroy its memory." — Novelist Milan Kundera