Is History Really Bunk?

A recent survey of college students' knowledge of U.S. history yielded the sad fact that the students know little about the facts of United States history, failing even to place the Civil War within its 50-year proper period. Senators Joseph Lieberman and Slade Gorton easily guided a resolution denouncing these results through the U.S. Senate.

These findings are hardly new. But what do they mean and what, beyond the usual hand-wringing, can be done about them?

First of all, such surveys are not new. They have long furnished grist for the mills of both critics of U.S. education and advertising agency executives. In the 1920s, ad agency researchers noted with some satisfaction that many Americans shared Henry Ford's opinion that history "is more or less bunk," and were ignorant of both current and historical events.  In one past survey, a large number of high school students identified "Mussolini" as a foreign country. Other tests have showed that large numbers of American students could not identify U.S. allies and enemies in World War II. For advertising agencies, the less people knew, the easier it was to sell them goods by packaging that appealed to their subjective preferences and trust in authority figures.

Some background information may help to explain why so much of the public seems to know so little about U.S. history. First, the subject of history in the United States has traditionally been taught as facts, events and dates from grade school to college — narratives that rise from the level of simple stories in the lower grades to densely detailed and documented accounts at the graduate level. This approach, re-enforced by exams, alienates many students, who quickly forget the factual material they are forced to regurgitate on tests. They remember instead the facts of subjects of more interest to Americans — sports, music, movies and television programs, where factual knowledge without contextual understanding can make people into quiz show millionaires.

Modern mass media's presentation of current events and much of history to the general public in a series of headlines, soundbites and newsclips encourages a sensibility in which everything blurs into everything else. For many, the facts of the intergalactic wars of the Star Trek TV series become as important as the Civil War.

An example of how historical interpretation follows the ratings marketplace can be seen in the commercial cable network, the History Channel, which liberal critics jokingly call the "Hitler channel" because its primetime hours are filled with sensationalistic documentaries on Hitler and the occult, the sex lives of the Nazis, Hitler's generals, Hitler's secret weapons, and the fate of Hitler's corpse. Besides Hitler, spy stories, war documentaries, accounts of disasters such as the sinking of the Titanic, and histories of the technology of warfare, automobiles, engineering and construction fill the hours.

Much of what the History Channel offers is not the history that is being unearthed and written by contemporary historians. Yet it certainly reaches a much larger audience through a more powerful medium than scholars' books and journal articles. Most historical research takes place in a university system that divides research from teaching, rewarding the former and neglecting the latter. How much of that research, separate from both teaching and public media, is accessible rather than esoteric, broad rather than narrow, and a force in encouraging public understanding of major social issues?

The late English political economist John A. Hobson captured a central problem of modern mass education and mass media dealing with public affairs when he wrote that "those who in vague rhetoric dwell on education as the substitute for force and revolution often mean a doped, standardized, and
servile education. But such education affords no safety in this dangerous world. Free-thinking alone can furnish the energy and the direction to human government, helping to bridge the chasm between physical and moral progress."

Today, mass media provide for the majority a "doped, standardized, and servile education" guided by a ratings system. Education for the majority, defined as a commercial product to be sold to consumers, increasingly follows suit. This consumerist approach encourages many instructors to "dumb down" curriculum and sacrifice creative and challenging approaches to the teaching of history in favor of an emphasis upon having students regurgitate soon-to-be-forgotten factual information on simple standardized tests.

What is often lost in such an approach is students' ability to develop the intellectual tools to analyze the context of events, as well as teachers' challenge to make the facts both exciting and relevant to understanding the relationship of the past to the present.

Historians and universities can make history relevant and exciting by rewarding both interdisciplinary research and teaching and by encouraging active involvement through the print and electronic media in the discussion of public policy. Such communication and dialogue offer the best hope to revive education for citizenship and make the public conscious of the value of its shared past. Then we may see a citizenry able to think about the causes and consequences of the Civil War and to understand why they should know about it.

Norman Markowitz is a member of the history faculty at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., and a writer for the History News Service.

August, 2000