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Do Students Care About History?

Civilization woozed out of the Nile about 300,000 years ago...Old Testament profits include Moses, Amy, and Confucius...Plato invented reality...During the Dark Ages it was mostly dark...Machiavelli wrote The Prince to get a job with Richard Nixon...Spinning Jenny was a young girl forced to work more than 40 hours a day...Westward expansion ended at Custard’s Last Stand...Few were surprised when the National League failed to prevent another world war....Hitler, who had become depressed for some reason, crawled under Berlin. Here he had his wife Evita put to sleep and then shot himself in the bonker...It is now the age of now.

Welcome to the past as a really foreign country. Yet it is familiar terrain for anyone who reads undergraduate prose, as this daring reappraisal of history comes verbatim from college exams and term papers. The exuberant inanity of this genre has an addictive pull; and I admit to being in the thrall of its madcap insight into the human condition. Do most people really listen to everything they hear? Attention spans are finite. The names and concepts in history class are so... foreign. Students, moreover, are busy people. Studying takes so much time. It’s handier simply to fill those empty blue book pages with things that can’t be actually wrong--The Assyrian program of exterminating various ethnic groups generally failed to promote cultural diversity. And there are at least two sides to every argument. It’s safest to show that you have grasped this without committing yourself-- The Anglo Dutch Trade Wars broke out because of trade and possibly not.

Anxiety and time constraint can also elicit mind-numbing absurdities from people who (one hopes) know better--Stalin, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Truman were known as the Big Three. Others fall prey to the perilous assumption that spell-check programs provide a proof-reading service--Von Falkenhayn was right. The French would breed themselves to death in order to retake Verdun.

Is there a deeper message here? It is clearly possible to finish high school, get into college, and still not know how many World Wars there have been or that Spain and Mexico are actually two different places. The results of a brief quiz I administer to freshmen on their first day of class at Shepherd College are, at the very least, sobering. A majority consistently fails to place the Second World War in the right decade or the Civil War in the right century, to identify Mohandas Gandhi or Winston Churchill, or to name the countries where one would find Dublin and Shanghai. A recent visit to the campus of Manhattan’s elite New York University confirmed my suspicion that Shepherd students are not alone in their confusion. A sample of NYU students, randomly selected by New York Times reporter John Tierney, were thoroughly stumped by the same quiz. An Economics major, for example, thought that Adam Smith was an American President. Another student guessed that the Civil War began in 1770.

It is also wise to assume nothing about freshman writing skills. One young scholar, for example, explained the forcible conscription of the title character in Voltaire’s Candide by observing that, “The Prussian Army would surprise young men by grabbing them in unfair places.” Others reproduce misheard phrases hastily scribbled in their notebooks-- warning, for example, against the perils of taking anything for granite or describing the need for escape goats in totalitarian systems.

It is easy, and not entirely fair, to blame the schools. Some educational systems would do well to consider greater emphasis on history and geography, not to mention English grammar. It is disturbing to hear from students that these subjects have sometimes been reduced to elective status. The level of basic knowledge among entering freshmen, however, is actually so mixed as to defy characterization. For every aspiring scholar who thinks that, “during the Middle Ages everybody was middle aged,” there are others who are passably clued in. Formal preparation is also not the whole story. The schools operate in the wider context of a society so focused on where it’s going that it has little patience with learning how it arrived at where it is. “Why,” an eighteen year old might ponder, “should I bother with this Benjamin Franklin Roosevelt person when tomorrow is dawning on a microchip.” Our social mobility and increasingly disconnected family lives are another source of ahistoricism. How many kids still grow up hearing older relatives’ stories about World War II or life in the Old Country?

Are young people the only ones who don’t know things they probably should? A century ago educated people shared a body of common knowledge ranging from literature and religion through classical languages to history and natural science. The frontiers of knowledge, though, have advanced dramatically; and we have become a society of specialists, tightly focused on our own turf and struggling to keep up with the latest. The Internet revolution, for all its advantages, has compounded the problem by offering instant access to blizzards of detailed information. Even (heaven forfend!) historians are likely to be no better than selectively aware of the world around them. How many history professors can describe a zygote or solve an algebra problem? A befuddled student of mine once concluded an exam with the desperate observation that, “Thus has our stream of consciousness developed a waterfall.” I confess. Faced with a high school general science exam, I would soon be hearing the thunder of my own Niagara..


1. Who were the following people?
a. Winston Churchill
b. Otto von Bismarck
c. Mohandas Gandhi
d. Nikita Khrushchev
e. Benito Mussolini
f. Sigmund Freud
g. Florence Nightingale
h. Adam Smith

2. In what countries are the following located?
a. Warsaw
b. Caracas
c. Dublin
d. Shanghai
e. Johannesburg
f. Pearl Harbor

3. When did the following events occur?
a. The end of the US Civil War
b. The Communist Revolution in Russia
c. The end of the First World War
d. The beginning of the Second World War
e. National Women's suffrage in US elections
f. The first successful airplane flight
g. The Boxer Rebellion
h. The Nazi seizure of power in Germany