Putting the story back in history
Learning history can be exciting, writes Richard Brookhiser in the Wall St. Journal.
History education has gone off the rails, though not primarily in ways that conservatives sometimes focus on. We tend to criticize the politically correct emphasis on formerly marginal ethnicities, races and genders–all of it at the expense of such topics as the Four Freedoms and the Constitutional Convention. There is in fact something to be learned from the newfangled subjects. What is worst about modern history teaching is the way in which so much of it is done, whether the subject is women workers of color or dead white statesmen.
History is taught as social studies with no great men, no sense of time and connection and no stories. No wonder kids don’t like it. It’s boring.
In 1965, when I was in fifth grade, I was taught a ripping yarn, a kids’ version of Herodotus and the Persian Wars: Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis; menacing Darius and Xerxes; plucky Athens and Sparta. It was sequential, exciting, important. By the time I was in high school, though, I was being exposed to something else, called “Social Studies,” in which abstract lessons were illustrated by “units” floating in ahistorical space. A unit on cities jumped from ancient Athens, to medieval Bruges, to 19th-century New York.
. . . (Americans) have a tradition of believing that we are beyond tradition or history, before the Fall or outside time, as if the New World made us New Men. When our mood swings to bleakness, we take on the burden of our original national sins–from slavery to exploitation to the extermination of the passenger pigeon. That is equally unhistorical, a theology not of innocence but of damnation.
Brookhiser has some good advice for “We the People,” a National Endowment for the Humanities effort to improve the teaching of U.S. history.