Our nation's sense of history becoming a thing of the past

May 21, 2002

ACADEMIC spitballs are being flung across classrooms at the youth of America these days for their insufficient knowledge of history. Not that the youth of America particularly care. Their sense of history lasts as long as it takes to hit a remote control button. So the moment, and the criticism, will pass from their minds.

With the country at war in Afghanistan, and Washington issuing new terrorism threats, we have a new U.S. Department of Education report saying high school seniors compiled "truly abysmal scores" on the 2001 U.S. History Report Card.

Such as: 57 percent could not even perform "at the bottom of the achievement ladder"; 32 percent performed on the bottom rung; 10 percent performed grade-level work; and only 1 percent were advanced or superior.

It brings to mind former Baltimore County Executive Don Hutchinson's foray, some years back, into one of our suburban high school classrooms. Hutchinson decided to give the kids a little pop quiz. But the kids didn't notice the twinkle in his eye. He asked who could name Maryland's six U.S. senators.

Nobody caught on: Maryland, like every other state in America, has only two.

In the May issue of Vanity Fair, critic James Wolcott notes a Presidents Day survey in 2000, conducted with seniors at 55 elite universities. Eighty percent of these high-tuition scholars would have flunked or gotten a D.

Most of them thought Ulysses S. Grant rallied the troops at Yorktown. It was George Washington. A lot of them thought the Battle of the Bulge was fought during the Civil War. It was World War II. But 98 percent of them knew that Snoop Doggy Dogg was a rap singer and not, as Wolcott writes, "a creation of Charles Schulz."

Two days ago, I happened to attend graduation exercises at Harford Community College and sat for a while with Jeffrey Sawyer. He is chairman of Harford's board of trustees and teaches history at the University of Baltimore.

"Why is it," I asked, "none of these kids today seems to care about history?"

"Geography's worse," he said. "Don't ask them to find Maryland on a map. But history?" He shrugged his shoulders. "Who knows? I go to the barbershop, and people get into conversations. Somebody will ask what I do. Teach history, I tell them. They shudder. They say, `Ooh, I hate history.'"

"But why?"

He shrugged again. "Who knows?"

Some of this may tie into a more generalized sense of America's school troubles. The colleges are all offering courses in English and math designed to fill in the gaps on all the stuff certain kids failed to learn while in high school.

For a while, these were referred to as "remedial" classes. But now, Sawyer said, they are known as "transitional" classes. The terminology is important, so as not to hurt anyone's feelings. But it poses this question: If these students didn't learn the material in high school, can somebody explain how they managed to "graduate" from high school?

As for history, Sawyer does have a theory. Americans have a thirst, he said, for "utilitarian" knowledge. We have no patience for that business about yesteryear's troubles offering direct lessons for today's. We want to know things that are useful to us, that directly touch our lives.

Today's students don't know that the Battle of the Bulge was World War II, but the generation that suffered through that awful winter knew it. History was shoved down their throats. They grew up in the Depression and came of age just in time to fight a war. History was "utilitarian" to them, all right.

The baby boomers had some sense of it, too, having grown up when the great civil rights struggles were changing the face of American classrooms, and these classrooms were emptying for regular air raid drills -- and then everyone filed out just in time for the war in Vietnam.

Today's students didn't notice history's dark shadow until the attacks of September. But, in typical modern fashion, it was seen on television and then went away as soon as we hit the remote control. Since almost none of us was directly touched by the attacks, and since none of us has been threatened by a subsequent military draft -- and since there aren't many live TV action pictures the military's been allowing us to see -- the war seems like just another TV drama.

And everybody knows those aren't real.

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