J. KARL MILLER: National epidemic of ignorance in history

Wednesday, July 6, 2011 | 12:40 p.m. CDT; updated 12:15 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 7, 2011

Being reminded once again of the woeful performance of American students in knowledge of history by the published results of the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress is definitely less than reassuring.

When one learns that a mere 13 percent of high school seniors tested showed a solid grasp of history, while eighth- and fourth-graders fared little better (18 and 22 percent, respectively, were proficient), it is embarrassing.

Although the test scores for all of the grades tested showed some improvement over those of 1994, they were but marginally higher and virtually unchanged from the 2006 testing.

By no stretch of the imagination can this sorry performance be excused, particularly when the problem was identified decades ago. One can find any number of venues to assess blame; however, in my and many other's estimation, the culprit is the ignoring of historical fact and replacing it with the "social studies" concepts of diversity, multiculturalism, gender and race. Regardless of the importance today's educators may place upon the social aspects, without a factual appraisal of when, why and how we got from the revolution to the present, the teaching of history is not only irrelevant, but dull.

As one who was last in an American history classroom in 1953 but maxed out the sample test questions, I stand by my opinion — lessons learned stay with the individual. Some will, of course, disagree, but something is obviously amiss in the teaching of history in our schools, and it cannot be all blamed on dumb or uninterested students.

I wish I could boast that this was foremost in my mind last week when we had the privilege of entertaining and being entertained by our two grandsons, ages 9 and 13 — ages when grandma and grandpa are still cool. They are good kids and extremely bright (as are all grandchildren), but when left to their own devices, tend to get wrapped around the axles of hand-held electronic games, the identification of which is beyond my comprehension as are the workings thereof.

To make a long story short, we organized a Thursday outing to Fulton, the site of the late Mr. William E Backer's Auto World Museum and Westminster College, the location of Winston Churchill's famed "Iron Curtain" speech and an authentic segment of the Berlin Wall. This adventure was a stark departure of the usual fare of ChuckE. Cheese's, miniature golf, Going Bonkers and swimming at the ARC. We had no preconceived notion of the education quotient of the day trip.

The first stop was the Auto Museum, where we viewed a short film describing its founding and then toured the floor and its 80-plus cars beginning with an 1895 Haynes (one of only two known to exist) and ending with 1980s vehicles. There were Model T's and A's, massive old touring cars, runabouts, a Whippet and a Delorean. There are Packards, Buicks, Chevrolets (my favorite, a 1957 red convertible), Fords, Hudsons and the much maligned Edsel and Corvair. You name it, it is on the floor.

Grandsons Joshua and Adam had a blast; they moved from car to car, excitedly reading the plaques with the specifications, model and year and asking questions. Reluctantly, they obeyed the "do not touch" admonishment received upon entrance to the facility but departed with a lasting knowledge and appreciation of the advent and progress of the automobile in America.

Next was the Churchill Museum and the Berlin Wall sections on display, complete with colorful Teutonic graffiti — particularly prevalent the use of the word "unwahr," which I remember as untrue from my studies. The Wall was the most electrifying for the youngsters, the 13-year-old Joshua having some knowledge and the 9-year-old Adam's natural enthusiasm for anything new, were the catalysts.

They read all of the commemorative plaques (both read at above their grade level) and asked intelligent questions about the reason for the Wall and its ultimate fall. Their quest for information led to the formation of East and West Berlin and Germany alike during the Cold War and included the Berlin Airlift. All in all, it was a very productive day.

The lesson here is two-fold — first, the factual experience of history, sans the revision for social engineering, can be both interesting and fun, particularly if it is made a "hands-on" experience. Secondly, there is an abundance of historical treasure within a few hours or a day's drive of Columbia — a virtually untapped resource of learning readily available and, sadly, not crowded.

By taking advantage of the opportunities available to increase a basic knowledge of American history, perhaps the pitiable ignorance portrayed by Jay Leno's "Jaywalking" audience can be a thing of the past.

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Richard Saunders July 6, 2011 | 4:52 p.m.

Perhaps if schools were not organs of the government, then the religion known as history would not be saddled with the collective guilt instilled by social studies?

(Report Comment)
Tim Trayle July 6, 2011 | 6:10 p.m.

The problem has much to do with Social Studies' colonization of curricular areas formerly covered by history and political science (or in its high school parlance, "civics"). But castigating topics of gender, race, and what you term "multiculturalism" is misjudged, for these are each major facets of historical understanding. I'd be all for abolishing social studies and replacing it with history and civics, but a history that doesn't at some level explore gender, race, and different cultures just doesn't explore...well...history.
Note that nothing in what I have written suggests ignoring what Miller terms "the factual experience of history"--gender, race, and issues of cultural difference and similarity are part of that. I don't see how a distinction between social and cultural aspects of history, and factual ones, holds up.
(It does sound like you folks had an enjoyable and productive day. Frankly, it sounds like it was a great day!)
Here's something: the GI Bill led to a whole new social class of students entering college in the 1950s and 1960s. Prior to the GI Bill, college had been the preserve of mainly quite upper-middle and upper-class folks, but the GI Bill flooded the nation's campuses with young folks from lower-middle and working-class backgrounds.
And they wanted to know more about the history of *their* class of people. They asked new questions, and historians responded (some of them were from this influx themselves). In time, as racial minorities and women achieved solid entry into college, *they* asked questions about the history of *their* forebears. Historians responded.
In other words, the arrival of race, class, and gender as topics of deep interest in history is not a plot, not an attempt at government takeover. It's a product of a largely beneficial and (to me) moving historical phenomenon: people asking more of history, asking for histories that recognized the true richness of this country's past. It's a profoundly (small-d) democratic development, and around 4 July seems a good time to think about it.

(Report Comment)
frank christian July 6, 2011 | 9:49 p.m.

Tim T.
"Here's something: the GI Bill led to a whole new social class of students entering college in the 1950s and 1960s. Prior to the GI Bill, college had been the preserve of mainly quite upper-middle and upper-class folks". Sorry Tim, but you must get it right, even though you want only to express your deep felt feelings. Tuition for a semester at Univ. of Mo., Columbia in early 50's was under $60, plus books. My summer job and the savings from it paid for a years enrollment and would have done so for several years, had I had the sense to realize the benefit. G.I. bill, after discharge from service, would have paid me and my expectant wife $125.00 per month while I attempted education again. We have both deemed that decision a wrong one, but it was ours and had nothing to do with "our class of people". Those of your time have created the class distinction, as well as the astronomical cost of education for anyone/everyone.

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire July 6, 2011 | 10:34 p.m.

State land grant colleges were put intentionally in the middle of nowhere so that only the affluent could afford to send their children to college. Social segregation was the intent from day one. And yes Frank, the fifties were fairly good times economically. Of course, the top tax bracket was much higher then...

(Report Comment)
Tim Trayle July 7, 2011 | 7:51 a.m.

Those who wish to explore the effects of the GI Bill in encouraging a new social class of college enrollees may consult John R. Thelin, _A History of American Higher Education_ (Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004) which is based on sustained research (it would have to be, to be a JHUP publication!); or Suzanne Mettler's _Soldiers to Citizens: The GI BIll and the Greatest Generation_ (Oxford UP 2005). Their findings about a new social class entering college are not controversial and not new--indeed, the impact of the GI Bill was evident from the start.
The new enrollments really shook up some schools--at Harvard, snobbish "old boys" called the veteran enrollees "duffels"--because they carried duffel bags instead of nice briefcases and the like. (Of course, you probably wouldn't actually call a WW2 vet a "duffel" to his face...)
At first, gov't paid tuition grants directly to colleges, but some colleges had the chutzpah to raise rates so as to defraud the system. That's why in 1950, gov't starting paying vets directly through the monthly payments noted by one respondent in this thread.
My father was an example of this wave: a Texan from a middling-poor background, and the son of an abandoned mother, he's often said that without the GI Bill, he would never have decided to delay job searches, and attend college instead. By the early 1960s, he was an engineer for NASA. He remains very grateful for the encouragement the GI Bill offered.
The GI Bill is widely known to have had a transformative effect on the social basis of college enrollments in this country after WW2. A wider context is of course the postwar economic and demographic boom.

(Report Comment)
frank christian July 7, 2011 | 11:02 a.m.

Might I submit that the "new social class" whom were enrolled in institutes of higher learning on GI Bill were the same volunteers and draftees that had had their option for education interrupted by our country's involvement in the wars. That the "flood" of enrollments, was the result of the "drought" brought on by the conflicts we endured. The only ones not able to attend our universities before and after these conflicts were our black citizens. That is, of course another story.

"State land grant colleges were put intentionally in the middle of nowhere so that only the affluent could afford to send their children to college". Or were put where they would be more available to the less affluent? There was not an automobile in my family until I reached High School, yet as stated, the cost of enrollment never presented a problem to me or any of my schoolmates. Everyone so inclined, enrolled in the U of MO.

", the fifties were fairly good times economically." Three recessions. Eisenhower administration in recession 28 of 96 months.

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire July 7, 2011 | 11:25 a.m.

"Or were put where they would be more available to the less affluent? There was not an automobile in my family until I reached High School, yet as stated, the cost of enrollment never presented a problem to me or any of my schoolmates.Everyone so inclined, enrolled in the U of MO. Everyone so inclined, enrolled in the U of MO."

Case in point. The majority of people live in St Louis or Kansas City. The majority of the people in this state do not live in Columbia. Not having an automobile in your family means that you either lived in the direct proximity of the college or that someone was going to have to find the money to pay for your room and board while you were here. There's no getting around that fact. That and the fact that there really wasn't much of any town here before there was a college. I stand by my assertion.

"Three recessions. Eisenhower administration in recession 28 of 96 months. ..."the cost of enrollment never presented a problem to me or any of my schoolmates. Everyone so inclined, enrolled in the U of MO."

I will leave it to you to reconcile your two statements.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 7, 2011 | 11:33 a.m.

Some of us easily remember that era because we were part of it. I refer not only to the WW II GI bill but to the Korean GI bill as well. These were similar, although the Korean bill was less generous (but generous enough).

There's something about these programs that was different from many federal programs that have since occurred: there was definite responsibility imposed upon the recipients.

Yes, you were compensated for attending college (trade school), but in addition to applying you actually HAD TO DO SOMETHING! No one was going to see that you got to classes, no one was going to study for you, no one was going to take and pass your exams for you, etc. And if you bowed out, the money stopped.

(Report Comment)
R. Whitfield Smith July 7, 2011 | 1:16 p.m.

"Just the facts, ma'm" doesn't cut it when learning or teaching history. The "who, what, when, where, and how" tell only part of the story. Col. Miller adds the "why" as important. Glad to see that, because it's often difficult to support the why of history. I believe Tim T. had it right as he explained that the social and cultural part of the story are important to a fuller understanding of events. Don't neglect the economic aspect, either.

(Report Comment)
garry graham July 7, 2011 | 2:42 p.m.

i wish it was just the ignorance in the history karl. its the whole banana.

public schooled in california in the fifties. too young for gi bill but look how affordable. cost maybe $6000 for four years college and three at top law school. thats $900 a year.

calif then numbero uno in education.
calif now numbero 47.

sure there are bright spots and great kids but we are in a downward spiral in california with little help on the way. tragic. but correctable?

SEMPRE FI- garry graham USMC

(Report Comment)
frank christian July 7, 2011 | 3:15 p.m.

PA - "or that someone was going to have to find the money to pay for your room and board". Were you aware that parents in those days *sometimes*, found money for student room and board, as did mine, when I finally wound up at Chillicothe Business College? Then there were those who worked and earned, while in school.

"I will leave it to you to reconcile your two statements." What's to reconcile?

garry graham - "downward spiral in california with little help on the way. tragic. but correctable?" I'm afraid not. You folks just keep on electing Democrats into your governments and worse yet, ours!

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire July 7, 2011 | 7:40 p.m.

Hmm. So when they put the college here over a century ago there were lots of jobs in the area then. Right?

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 8, 2011 | 2:57 p.m.

@garry graham & J. Karl Miller:

Interesting! The figures Garry quotes are pretty close to the cost of my four-year education at what was then known as University of Missouri School of Mines & Metallurgy(MSM), and I was an out-of-state student.

Of course we need factor in the buying power of a 1950s dollar versus that of the dollar today.

On the other hand, inflation of university and college expenses has been FAR GREATER than general inflation.

As to history, it was only after I lived in another country that I realized how meager my knowledge of American history was. Embarrassing to have foreigners ask you reasonable questions about United States history that you should be able to answer but can't. :(

(Report Comment)
frank christian July 8, 2011 | 3:54 p.m.

Ellis - I've admitted it before and will do it again The primary reason I became interested in our government was from questions posed by my wife's friends while in Scotland in early 50's. They had many and it soon became apparent that everyone of them knew more about my government than I did.

An anecdote from one of our sessions comes to mind. One young fellow asked, "Is it true that everyone in America has central heat in their homes? (Their public buildings, hospitals etc. had steam heat.) I answered yes, most had central heat. He shook his head and opined, "I just can't imagine the whole family sitting around a radiator at night!" I tried to explain the benefit in having each room warm, not just the one with the fireplace burning coal. He/they still didn't get it. Or, maybe I/we don't. Togetherness makes a close knit family, right?

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