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History takes a back seat in education

Steve Haycox

For 14 years, the Center for Media and Learning of the City University of New York and the Center for History and Media at George Mason University have maintained a website called "History Matters" (.com). It's a history resource and learning tool for college and high school teachers and students packed with primary sources and aids for analyzing historical evidence. The assumption behind the site is that knowing, and not knowing, history makes a difference in how we understand the present and plot the future.

The popularity of historical media sites, such as the History Channel, and the sale of books such as David McCullough's biography of John Adams and Robert Caro's four volumes (so far) on Lyndon Johnson would seem to suggest the proposition's validity. But on closer examination the reality may be somewhat different.

Were Adams' views of Jefferson those McCullough claims, or was Henry Adams closer to the mark? And what of S.C. Gwynne's biography of Quanah Parker, the last chief of the ferocious Comanches, "Empire of the Summer Moon;" are the thoughts Gwynne assigns to Cynthia Ann, Quanah's white mother, hers or the historian's? And what of Eric Foner's new study of Abraham Lincoln's ideas on slavery, "The Fiery Trial"; did Lincoln grow into his determination that slavery was wrong, or, as Harry Jaffa argued in his two earlier studies, did Lincoln abhor slavery from the beginning of his thoughtful life? The answers to such questions are uncertain, as is most historical interpretation.

Formal education seems to have taken that uncertainty to heart. Fewer history courses are being offered in most colleges than 20 years ago; some colleges require no history in their general degree requirements. History, along with its essential companion, geography, is not emphasized in K-12 education; in fact, it's difficult to find a course devoted exclusively to geography in the schools anymore. No Child Left Behind uses testing only in reading and mathematics to determine whether a school is to be labeled a success or failure.

Across the college spectrum, immediate and specific employability is the principal criteria for budget allocation and for capital expansion. University presidents and parents want degrees, certificates, in something tied to a particular, remunerative occupation -- business administration, mechanical engineering, computer science, nursing, not something airy and unemployable. And because it is airy, history is seen as a pleasant past-time, bedtime reading, not anything a serious individual would let go to their head.

Yet some knowledge of the evolution of culture and world affairs seems necessary for negotiating ordinary personal and business life. Not knowing a general outline of history can be a substantive handicap, making more difficult, hence time-consuming and expensive, choosing which path ahead is more likely to have positive results. It also makes us gullible and vulnerable.

Bill Moyers presented a telling example of this a week ago on his weekly PBS program. He noted that in April, Congressman Allen West of Florida told a group in Jensen Beach that he had heard there were 80 or so Communists in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was apparently referring to the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Unless one knows the history of McCarthyism in the U.S., one knows neither that such careless and rootless charges have been made before, nor their corrosive effect on honesty and decency.

A degree in computer science may be useful in getting a job, though given the glut of people with similar training, it may not. But it is most unlikely to help much in evaluating the defenselessness of workers without unions, or how dangerous the regression to racially charged political rhetoric may be, or what it will take to shift our public resources to the development of renewable energy. History can be useful in constructing policy judgments on all of these, and on more substantive questions, as well: what is justice and what are the consequences of adopting one or another theory about it; what can we expect of soldiers in war or police on the beat; how can we plan for unexpected consequences?

History, with literature and philosophy, used to be considered an essential tool in our formal education. Now, it seems, most of the populace must grope along without it.

Steve Haycox is a professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.