Questionable Motives

June 14, 2011

Why does knowledge of history matter?

Filed under: Canada,Education,History,Ignorance,United States — tildeb @ 8:46 pm

History, one of my favourite subjects when I was in school, is a dying subject. And this carries with it a cost played out in ignorance.

In the latest national testing in the States, Americans are losing knowledge of their history, which means their are losing their ability to understand how things were and why things came to be they way they are today. This failure to teach to proficiency in history for public school students is akin to setting them adrift into the world armed only by ignorance of their historical roots.  For example, over all, 20 percent of fourth graders, 17 percent of eighth graders and 12 percent of high school seniors demonstrated proficiency on the exam, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. This trend is revealing. Proficiency is one of three categories:  “basic” denotes partial mastery of a subject; “proficient” represents solid academic performance and a demonstration of competency over challenging subject matter; and “advanced” means superior performance. Shockingly, only 2 percent of 12th graders correctly answered a question concerning Brown v. Board of Education, probably the most important Supreme Court ruling ever made. I studied it in high school and later at university… in Canada! And to add a revelation of just how apathetic American students are – without blaming parents and school boards and the internet for this failure to educate, although obviously there is great deal here to go around – only9% of fourth-graders could identify the man on the five dollar bill as Abraham Lincoln. Who he was and why he was an important historical figure pales when one considers the fact that the most basic curiosity of why a picture of this guy is on the five dollar bill is lacking from the start.

And this is the country whose leadership keeps lying to the public that it can produce students who will compete successfully against those from the rest of the world… omitting from the proposition that ignorance – whether in history or science or math – is hardly a solid foundation upon which to build its shining future. Yet that is exactly what it is doing: producing students with little knowledge and even less curiosity. The situation reminds me of the wisdom of Edmund Burke (no, I won’t tell you… go look it up) who said, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”

That’s a bad thing, by the way.


  1. “I studied it in high school and later at university… in Canada!’

    Therein lies the problem. When I went to school in the fifties and sixties, I learned more about European (British) history and than I did Canadian. Canadians tend to know more American history than Canadian history, probably because of television and books. One of the many reasons I am a fan of Margaret Atwood’s writing is the events in her early novels take place in Toronto or Ontario.

    In the late nineties, on the York University campus, a young man asked me why a particular building was named the Ross Building. I said, “He was our first president.” The young man answered, “Of the United States?”

    Please answer this trivia question: Who was Herbert Spencer

    Answer: The man who refused to marry George Eliot.

    Comment by Veronica Abbass — June 15, 2011 @ 11:31 am | Reply

    • Ha! (I had to read Middlemarch – not what I would consider one of the highlights from my reading list.)

      Well, British history is important (as are many of the histories of the European powers). Of course, once one sinks one’s teeth into history, it isn’t long before everything seems connected to everything. This makes the unusual stand out in clear contrast… something like the Galileo affair or the US Constitution or the ability of diverse ethnic groups to maintain peace order and (somewhat) good governance here in Canada.

      For me it was seeing Canadian military graves in South Africa, then England, then France, then Italy. What were they doing here? Why were they so well maintained? Why did the locals still care? All these answers lie in history just waiting for a questioner. Pretty fascinating stuff.

      Years ago I was filling in for a teacher in BC for a few days one of the classes was Social Studies’ (into which history had been shoehorned). I don’t remember the specific topic I was to cover but I do recall a student (this was a grade 11 class and this student was well known to be highly disruptive if the mood so took him) asked at the beginning why they had to learn “this stuff”. I thought a moment and answered, “Give me some time to think about that.” I went on with the lesson, assigned the reading and questions, and gave them time to complete it by the end of class (otherwise they ended up with homework). With about ten minutes to go, I reminded the student of his question and gave him my multiple-point response from the most immediate and practical to the most general. It took me a few minutes but I had everyone’s attention. He thanked me, said it was the first time a teacher had ever given him an honest answer he could understand, and throughout the few days we were together peppered me (along with a full class of students) with eager and earnest questions of how this connected to that, how this legislation affected that legal ruling, how something as common as local architecture told a silent story and revealed influences, and so on. I could tell that these students had never seen history in this way, that it could be personal as well as social, that it contained important and meaningful content that was useful and – surprisingly – interesting.

      Sometimes curiosity has to be sparked and if the schools are doing a poor job at this then something needs fixing. Without question, the US public school system is broken.

      Comment by tildeb — June 15, 2011 @ 5:14 pm | Reply

  2. “The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth.”

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — June 16, 2011 @ 2:41 am | Reply

    • Just so. Look how abused American history has become over the intention of the founders over the separation of church and state or (lately) the blatant lie that the scientific method came about because and with the support of christianity to name just two. A long standing absurdity is about how Darwin’s theory of evolution influenced and motivated Hitler to bring about the holocaust.

      Ignorance of history is one thing that can be addressed in the schools; intentionally revising history to suit a purpose or justify an opinion is simply odious and deserving of contempt.

      Comment by tildeb — June 16, 2011 @ 10:49 am | Reply

  3. My favourite line about history is…”History repeats itself because no one was listening the first time.”

    Comment by Cedric Katesby — June 16, 2011 @ 9:01 am | Reply

  4. Like you, I love history – my favorite subject bar none. I like learning and evaluating what happened in another era, another time, and the consequences and lessons learned. There seems to be no end what can be studied and learned from the past – namely for a better future.

    I am finding people are pretty ignorant about history as well, because they cannot find the value of the topic. What seems to be most true is yesterday does effect today, and while we write history is being made and the stories will inform us for the next 50 to a 100 years.

    Comment by SocietyVs — June 16, 2011 @ 3:34 pm | Reply

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