Historical Ignorance

Whatever happened to teaching history?

Tribune Content Agency

According to a report by the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), the teaching of U.S. history to American students lags behind all other subject matters.

The latest NAEP survey finds that proficiency levels for fourth-, eighth- and 12th-grade students are in the 20, 18 and 12th percentile, respectively.

Part of this, I suspect, is the way the subject is taught. History is boring to many students. It was boring to me in high school and college. Who wants to read about a bunch of dead white men one cannot view on video, or even in high-resolution photographs?

I asked David M. Rubenstein about this. Rubenstein has so many titles and accomplishments, including co-founder and co-executive chairman of the private equity firm, the Carlyle Group, and chairman of the Board of Trustees for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

His new book, “The American Story: Conversations with Master Historians,” is a series of interviews with contemporary writers, including Jon Meacham, Doris Kearns Goodwin, David McCullough, Robert Caro and Jay Winik. All have written highly readable biographies that metaphorically raise America’s Founders and other important historical figures from the dead, making readers feel they are in the same room where they speak to us today.

Why does Rubenstein think U.S. history has taken a back seat to every other subject? He replied: “To some extent it started after Sputnik in 1957 when people were concerned that our science and technology were not as good as the Soviets … then when China came along as an economic and technological threat … the emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) became a bigger deal. Also, I think parents said to their children ‘make sure you study something that will get you a job when you graduate.’ All of this made history go down and therefore we don’t teach it very much.”

Rubenstein tells me this is not in his book, but something he finds shocking: “Today you can graduate from any college in the United States without having to take an American history course and you can graduate as a history major in 80 percent of the colleges and not have to take an American history course.”

As if this were not stunning enough, he adds: “A recent survey revealed that if one is foreign born and wishes to become a citizen, you have to be a resident for five years. It used to be 14. After five years you take a test. Ninety-one percent of the people pass. The same test was given to native-born citizens in all 50 states by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. A majority failed in every state, except Vermont. This shows you how bad the situation has gotten.”

Rubenstein says when history is taught it is more about world civilizations than American history. While he says he doesn’t think learning about other countries is a bad idea, “it’s good to know your own history. I do find as I travel around the world that people know more about American history than people in the United States do.”

While he won’t comment on the role political correctness has played in the spinning of American history, the stories one hears coming from public schools and universities seems to confirm that the facts of America’s past are being revised to reflect a liberal and contemporary view. That is because some of the Founders owned slaves and explorers like Christopher Columbus are said to have wrecked a society of indigenous people and these “stains” can never be washed away, or at least seen in the context of their major achievements.

David Rubenstein’s interviews are a thrilling trip to the past and ought to be required reading for anyone who cares about America’s future because, as Shakespeare wrote, “What’s past is prologue.”

(This year marks Cal Thomas’ 35th year as a syndicated columnist. Readers may email Cal Thomas at tcaeditors@tribpub.com.