Don’t worry, kid, you don’t need to know that

The Review-Journal editorialized, back on July 25:

“To understand and explain American exceptionalism, like it or not, it may be necessary to at least understand why aeroplanes were not used in the Civil War, why the British couldn’t use the train to get back and forth between New York and Philadelphia in 1788, and why the Jackson Democrats kept making such a fuss about the National Bank.

“Nevada’s Council to Establish Academic Standards was scheduled to meet July 21 to adopt new public-school history standards. When some attention was drawn to what they’re up to, they promptly postponed their meeting for ‘lack of a quorum.’

“Behind all the double-talk about replacing fact-driven, chronological history with a more ‘thematic approach,’ the unmistakable goal is to dumb down our history classes still further. The draft proposal under consideration is ‘gobbledy-gook,’ says Carson City School Board member (and former history teacher) Joe Enge. The stated goals are ‘so broad I could drive a truck through them,’ Mr. Enge says.

“Extrapolating ‘themes’ from history is great. But a young person cannot possibly judge — let alone generate — a useful interpretation of any facet of American history if he or she cannot locate the battlefields of Gettysburg, Pearl Harbor, Bunker Hill, Guadalcanal, Normandy, and Yorktown on a globe … place them in their proper chronological order … and name a commanding officer from at least three.

“Go ahead, ask them.”

In response, one Cheryl Grames Hoffman of Las Vegas writes in:

“Kind sir, I can assure you that no job or law school application has asked any questions about the names and places of American battles of any century. More importantly … such a view obstructs a constructive conversation about how best to teach history to kids.

“I taught American history at UNLV for three semesters, and I really, really did not want my students simply to spew facts at me. Instead, I wanted them to learn the relevance and meaning of some key facts, and then to show me they could convey that relevance and meaning in a clear and convincing way. Sure, it would be cool for young people today to know the facts of the Great Depression. Even cooler would be for them to be able to speak and write about it well. Employers, I think, place value on that ability — not on knowledge of important battles in our past.

“Studying history is a means to an end: it can provide an opportunity for kids to master a much-needed set of skills. Let us focus on providing them a means for learning how to think critically, to synthesize data, and to present it for others to scrutinize. The end, however, is not that young people become more patriotic and less apathetic about all that has transpired before they arrived on this planet. The end is that our youngest citizens are ready to join us upon graduation as productive members of society, equipped with valuable, transferable skills.

“Isn’t that really what most folks would like our educational system to accomplish?”

Well, no, Ms. Hoffman. If all we wanted was to teach the process of “synthesizing data” we could cancel the history courses and have the young people write papers analyzing the philosophy of Batman.

You cannot process and interpret data until you’ve got some. English class is for learning how to craft a paper — to improve their diction and delivery the young folk can join the Debate Club. In history class we expect them to actually commit some stuff to memory.

If I’m reading this right, what we have here is a history teacher (albeit “former”) saying it’s silly — that it “obstructs a constructive conversation about how best to teach history to kids” — to expect college history students to be able to tell us whether Gettysburg or Yorktown came first (We said “place in chronological order,” not “give specific dates”) and to name a couple of the commanding generals.

Because the question never comes up on job applications.

I don’t remember ever being asked to do long division on a job application, either, or how many electrons there are in a helium atom. (We would want our students to be able to “spew some facts” about what happened at Lakehurst in May of 1937 before they substituted hydrogen in their balloons with helium, wouldn’t we?)

What prospective employers and institutions of higher learning do ask is whether you’ve got an eighth grade education, or a high school diploma, or maybe spent four or five years at a day school best known for its semi-pro basketball team and being closed on weekends.

As recently as 1965 an affirmative answer to the “eighth grade” question meant you could do long division, algebra and at least stumble through “Madame Bovary” and/or the “Commentarii de Bello Gallico.” The “high school diploma” question used to mean no one had to re-check to make sure you knew “1781; west shore of the Chesapeake; Cornwallis surrenders to Washington” with extra points if you knew what the Comte de Grasse was up to, that week.

Apparently nowadays asking about the diplomas will no longer suffice; thanks to “educators” such as Ms. Hoffman we’re going to have to actually start checking this stuff.

How do you discuss the “relevance and meaning” of Continental logistics problems or the Treaty of Paris or the 1789 debate over the need for a stronger central state if you think Yorktown was fought after Gettsyburg and you believe the American commander in 1781 was Meade or Eisenhower or maybe Robert E. Lee or you just don’t care because you’re convinced none of that matters, it’s all just “spewing facts,” that studying history is a “means to an end” — an undisclosed “end” that apparently has more to do with moaning about the lack of advancement opportunities for 18th century women than requiring anyone to retain any “facts” or be able to explain what happened at Pearl Harbor or Bunker Hill or the beaches of Normandy … or even who was in charge?

How do you “think critically” about whatever theories and “trends” the government-school teacher wants to spoon-feed you if you don’t know enough “boring facts” to say, “Wait a minute; that doesn’t fit”?

Should we wonder now why so few of our public servants seek to emulate Washington — how would they even know how? — if they have no idea what he did on Dec. 23, 1783, and then on March 4, 1797, arguably the two most important acts taken by any single man in delivering us our freedom (“If this is true,” said no less a figure than George III, “then he is the greatest man of the age”) … exceeding even what “the indispensable man” did on Christmas night, 1776, a date any American should be ashamed at having to look up?

I wipe away tears of pride. Ms. Hoffman sneers that we’re “just spewing facts.”

Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Review-Journal and author of “The Ballad of Carl Drega” and the novel “The Black Arrow.” See

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