With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Don’t Know Much About History

As a journalist-turned college professor, I was dismayed--but not surprised--by the dismal results of the latest U.S. History Report Card testing the knowledge of high-school seniors about what used to be considered major events in American history. To be fair, I'm not sure I could write a long essay on the War of 1812. But 52 percent of 12th-graders failing-on a multiple-choice exam--to pick out the former Soviet Union as our ally during World War II? And 71 percent missing the significance of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution? That's scary.

I teach a large undergraduate course at American University called How the News Media Shape History. It's a popular course (created by my colleague Rodger Streitmatter) that examines the influence of news media during specific chapters in U.S. history. While I am often gratified by students' discovery of the derring-do of Nellie Bly, the wicked caricatures of Thomas Nast or the outraged eloquence of Edward R. Murrow in his broadcast from Buchenwald, I am also startled by the huge gaps in our collective unconscious. Tom Paine and Frederick Douglass? Students have heard of them. Ida Tarbell or even Ernie Pyle? You're likely to get blank stares.

I don't know exactly what students are learning in junior high and high school about American history--I'm sure that they're doing a better job of teaching about cultural and ethnic diversity today than when I was forced to take an entire year of Texas history (that's right--Texas--not U.S.-history) in junior high, memorizing that my home state had 254 counties (I think I'm still right on that) and learning God knows what imperialist vision of the settling of Texas and"the heroes of the Alamo."

But, even when it comes to the more radical periods of American history, I find college students surprisingly uninformed. They don't seem to know, for example, that this country had Socialists and Communists in it during the Great Depression, or that anti-Catholicism was a powerful force during the 1920s. They're not only fuzzy about important dates in American history, they're lacking the knowledge and context that makes the heroes and heroines of American history inspiring. My women students, in particular, are fascinated to hear about the challenges faced by pioneer female journalists in broadcasting. But if you've never heard of these pioneers before--and if you don't know that it took women 75 years and some radical action to get the vote--how can you appreciate the gains that women have made to this point?

Such ignorance of the past, of course, has consequences in young people's thinking. They're easy prey for the latest in pop thinking from magazines and popular culture-and, more ominously, they're easy marks for spin from political operatives or convenient memory loss from the government. If all you know about feminism is Britney Spears or the latest study telling young women they'd better hurry up and have a baby, of course, you're going to declare, as so many of my women students do when I ask the class,"I'm not a feminist." If you don't know that reporters regularly traveled with and reported on American troops in Vietnam, you're going to think it's natural for the U.S. military to severely restrict media access first to the Persian Gulf War and later to the campaign in Afghanistan.

Ironically, I find, it is the more recent chapters in American history that are the most obscured from the view of many young people. They're pretty clear on the Founding Fathers; it's the 1960s and beyond where I feel that I get the most blank stares. You could chalk this up partly to generational narcissism on my part: I am a child of the 1960s and, like many people my age, I was shaped by the forces of that era. But, apart from my own coming-of-age, I believe that the 1960s are an important period in our recent history. And I am startled to find that the tumult of those times is often shrouded in ignorance and myth.

This semester, as an experiment, I asked my students to survey three people (two of them college students, one a person over 25) about Martin Luther King, Jr., a man they've surely studied at length in school. Almost all of the respondents volunteered that King was most famous for his"I Have a Dream" speech, and most said"elementary school" when asked where they had learned about King. But not that many people knew that King had opposed the war in Vietnam. And here's generational narcissism and painful memory at work: the 45- and 50-year-olds surveyed thought Martin Luther King was close to their own age today when he was assassinated. Younger people were better at estimating the correct age (39).

I blame television, in part, for the ahistorical nature of our society. It's the"Today" show, not the"Yesterday" show, that brings us the day's news. With all the live,"breaking news" coverage in the 24-hour news environment, there are stories that shouldn't be covered (live local car chases with no national significance) and stories (the Robert Blake arrest) that don't merit endless repetition of the few facts known-along with coverage of the truly important and newsworthy. But looking backwards is fairly rare on the news.

A TV series like Ken Burns's"Civil War" on PBS can illuminate an era for viewers young and old. But it's the mass media--including mass entertainment media--that many young people are paying close attention to. And the commercial culture--buy new and buy now--does not lend itself to historical reflection.

But the press of popular culture does not mean that we should let ourselves or our students off the hook when it comes to learning American history. We should certainly use popular culture to draw parallels to the past, but I have a sneaking suspicion that too many high-school students are studying the semiotics of"South Park" without learning the basics of history. I hate to sound like a neoconservative, but maybe more students should be asked to memorize (yea, even retain) more dates and other facts from American history. (Those timelines are instructive, especially in this hopped-up, present-tense world.) And if, as some reports suggest, there are too many junior-high and high-school students learning history from teachers who did not major or minor in history themselves, that, of course, should be addressed in the ongoing debate about educational opportunity and reform.

When it comes to common references in entertainment, it's semi-amusing to hear the joke about the young fan who comes across a Beatles CD and exclaims,"Hey, I didn't know Paul McCartney was in a group before Wings!" But when it comes to American history, it's not funny to contemplate a new generation of young people who can all spell Eminem but don't know a lot about Reconstruction. Would our schools want to send their sports teams out to play without coaching? That's what we're doing with our future voters and leaders if we don't teach them enough about the events that shaped our nation today.