Overcoming our ignorance about history and government
Published 3:09 pm Monday, March 4, 2019
The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation (WWF) released its findings from a nationwide test on American history and government, and the results were pretty horrible. Here are some ideas for us to reverse our decline in an area where we once led the world: knowing our story and our political structure.
On the WWF exam for history and government, only Vermont saw a majority of residents pass the test, while 47 percent still failed. In every other state, the majority of residents got an F, with very few in each state getting an A or B. The worst performing states were in the Southeast USA, where you think some sort of patriotic pride might be in play, but it wasn’t.
The WWF is trying to reverse that. They deplore the emphasis on memorizing dates, events and leaders. On this, I agree with them. The WWF is promoting a series of digital lesson plans, video games and graphic novels. But there’s no guarantee these new tech ideas will work any better than the old fashioned methods.
Every year, I teach about a dozen would-be teachers at LaGrange College. Most of them aren’t too different from the rest of the population in their knowledge of history, geography, economics and government. I know because I give them a pretest. But they are a pretty motivated bunch, willing to learn and have learned how to learn from their college professors.
Over the semester, their scores improve dramatically as they learn the material. By the end, their scores are much higher, and they’re generally ready for the tough exams for certification.
I don’t have any special tech, comic books, movies, or digital platforms. But I have a passion for these subjects. Yes, I aced the WWF test … and anyone who plays trivia with me knows that’s my only good subject. But I’ll go through a brick wall to get these future teachers to have such a desire as well. “Love your subject matter,” I tell them, “and the kids will get excited in what you’re teaching as well.” Those who have graduated and taught in their field concur.
Of course, if the students don’t see themselves in the historical characters, they won’t see why it matters. As my teachers can be a pretty diverse lot, it helps that the new lessons involve more women and minorities, which matters given that they’ve played a role in our history, and deserve such a place. It’s the same for conservatives, as I have conservative students as well. Newer curriculum gives them their deserving place as well in our country’s past and present.
I also don’t whitewash our history. “Only one ever walked on water on this Earth,” I tell them, as I document our mistakes and efforts to fix them. Students get it that we’re not perfect; we can’t solve today’s problems unless we study how we improved upon our past. But I also point out how we have a good history, a dynamic economic system, and the oldest existing government in force today for a reason. You’ll be proud to fly the flag after my class.
Once, the USA led the world in international tests on history and government, but that’s fallen by the wayside nowadays, for a variety of reasons. We emphasize a few subjects and kick history and government to the curb. The same limited list of Americans we should know is trotted out, and kids just don’t see themselves in those figures, or how someone like them might matter. Every detail is pored over, so that you never reach WWII (perhaps explaining the shocking number of ignorant Holocaust deniers). And the tone of the class is either “America is flawless” or “America is awful,” depending on the teacher, further confusing the kids.
It’s no wonder so many fail history and government. New tech and fancy books and videos might help, but not unless the students see a reason for why it all matters. And those of us who love our country, faults and all, are the ones who need to show them why this place is so great.