Hand down a hunger for history

May 17, 2002|By Clarence Page

CHICAGO -- Here's a paradox for you: America's children are flunking American history while their parents and grandparents can't seem to get enough of the best-selling books churned out by a new wave of media-superstar historians.

Even after celebrity-author Stephen Ambrose, for example, was found to have recycled phrases and sentences in his best-seller The Wild Blue from another author's book without attribution, publishing industry spokespeople say it probably won't hurt his book sales.

"Any agent or publisher would be glad to grab him," literary agent Jeff Herman told Forbes magazine, whose Web site, Forbes.com, found more evidence of plagiarism in other Ambrose books.

Yes, the negative publicity might even help his book sales. As they say in Hollywood, any publicity is good publicity. Such is the appetite among us book buyers for lively historical narratives.

So what's the problem with our kids?

Judging by the dismal scores that a sampling of American students produced on recent history tests, the subject is, as the youngsters say, not "coo-wuhl" enough.

Nearly six in 10 high school seniors lacked even a basic knowledge of U.S. history in a national survey of about 29,600 public and private school fourth-, eighth- and 12th-graders, the Department of Education announced.

Seven years of concerted effort to bolster history instruction produced virtually no gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which was given last year. "The higher their grade in school, the lower their understanding in history," said Education Secretary Rod Paige.

In the eyes of today's youths, I mean, like, history? It's, like, so last century, y'know?

That's why at Mount Vernon, George Washington's pastoral Virginia estate, a spokeswoman recently told me, "Our visitors used to come to find out how George Washington lived. Today they tend to come to find out who George Washington was."

In response, Mount Vernon has announced a new multimillion-dollar multimedia museum and orientation-center complex that is scheduled to open in 2006. The goal is to transform the nation's first president from "a stoic elder statesman," according to a press release, into "the action hero of his times."

In our rush to boost "the basics" like reading, writing and arithmetic, in an age increasingly focused on standardized achievement testing, it is hard for educators to get excited about a richly engaging and narrative approach to history. Yet, our understanding of our nation's past provides the intellectual glue that holds us Americans together.

My own in-house youth consultant, my son, is almost 13 and knows with astonishing details the genealogy of Frodo Baggins from Lord of the Rings or the battles of Luke Skywalker's rebellion against the empire in Star Wars.

Yet he did not know until recently that Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin. He knows because I told him.

"They don't teach us much history in school, Dad," he said.

This saddened me. You want the best for your kids and here my son was missing out on one of life's most valuable gifts, a sense of himself in the context of the history that has gone before him.

By the time I was my son's age -- so last century! -- I was well familiar with Lincoln's birth in a one-room log cabin with a dirt floor in Kentucky, where he walked miles to school and read books by the dim light of a fire at night.

Although he was white and I was black and more than a century separated us, Lincoln's poverty felt viscerally familiar to me. If he could make something important out of his life, I felt more confident that I could, too.

History gives our schools a chance to inspire as well as educate. I am eternally grateful to the history teachers who helped to inspire me.

Nowadays we grownups seem to have grabbed onto this captivating and thrillingly entertaining thing called history and, in many ways, kept it to ourselves. We should share the wealth.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Fridays in The Sun.

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