Saturday, October 04, 2008

How Do You Sleep?

The liberal news site MinnPost celebrates this glimpse into the state of public education in Minneapolis:

When asked what historical figure they'd most like to study this year, an astounding 22 of the 35 students in Ms. Ellingham's eighth-grade history class at Susan B. Anthony middle school in Minneapolis answered, "Yoko Ono" and/or "John Lennon."

I weep for the future.

The great historian David McCullough was on C-SPAN this past week, looking like a beaten man while describing the crushing level of historical ignorance among America's youth. He summed up with the warning that one can never love a country one doesn't know. It sounded like an epitaph.

I can't find the transcript of his comments online, but I did find his address upon accepting the National Book Award. The commentary is very similar. And all the more depressing to realize they were made in 1996. Please add the damage of 12 more years of lost time (an entire scholastic generation) to the following conclusions:

We, in our time, are raising a new generation of Americans who, to an alarming degree, are historically illiterate.

The situation is serious and sad. And it is quite real, let there be no mistake. It has been coming on for a long time, like a creeping disease, eating away at the national memory. While the clamorous popular culture races on, the American past is slipping away, out of site and out of mind. We are losing our story, forgetting who we are and what it's taken to come this far.

Warning signals, in special studies and reports, have been sounded for years, and most emphatically by the Bradley Report of 1988. Now, we have the blunt conclusions of a new survey by the Education Department: The decided majority, some 60 percent, of the nation's high school seniors haven't even the most basic understanding of American history. The statistical breakdowns on specific examples are appalling.

But I speak also from experience. On a winter morning on the campus of one of our finest colleges, in a lively Ivy League setting with the snow falling outside the window, I sat with a seminar of some twenty-five students, all seniors majoring in history, all honors students-the cream of the crop. "How many of you know who George Marshall was?" I asked. None. Not one.

At a large university in the Midwest, a young woman told me how glad she was to have attended my lecture, because until then, she explained, she had never realized that the original thirteen colonies were all on the eastern seaboard.

Who's to blame? We are.

Everywhere in the country there are grade school and high school teachers teaching history who have had little or no history in their own education. Our school system, the schools we are responsible for, could rightly be charged with educational malpractice.

If you happen to live in a school district asking for a raise this year (for example Minneapolis, looking for $480 million over 8 years), perhaps you should keep this and John Lennon in mind when deciding whether or not they have been proper stewards of your money.

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