In higher education we spend ample time discussing the idea of a core curriculum. Every university comes up with a buzzwordish name for it, but the concept is the same: to define the basic, bare minimum knowledge that we feel a student must have, in addition to whatever specialized knowledge they get in their field(s) of interest, to leave college with a useful understanding of the world and the skills required to function in it. Unsurprisingly these core curricula focus on writing/composition, basic math and science, and history. While it is fair to note that some students get college degrees without mastering some or all of these core skills, polling data shows that Americans are woefully ignorant about history and world affairs – to a troubling extent.

If I may briefly mount my pedagogical high horse, I consider two historical events – if you could only pick two – absolutely essential to understanding modern American society and government. The first is the American Civil War. The other is World War II. No, I don't believe students benefit from memorizing the names of battles and generals. I do think that if one is really to understand the fundamental political conflicts in the United States, an understanding of the causes and aftermath of the Civil War is indispensable. Likewise, modern global politics (and a good deal of American exceptionalism in policy both foreign and domestic) is rooted in WWII.

K-12 classes still overwhelmingly choose to teach history chronologically. This, in my experience and what I commonly hear from students, results in a seriously detrimental lack of emphasis on modern history. The academic year begins with ancient Greeks and Romans and ends sometime in May, usually having gotten no further than the Industrial Revolution or perhaps World War I. Accordingly, I get a ton of young people who, through no fault of their own, have been taught more about Plato and Tacitus than about the Cold War, decolonization, the Vietnam War, globalization, the collapse of the Iron Curtain, and 9/11 combined. Recently I found a class of 25 honors students – excellent students – totally ignorant of the basic aspects of the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent propaganda surge leading to the Iraq War. And why should they know? They were 8 when it happened, and it has never been taught to them.

American students do get the Civil War. They might get it in bizarre or ideologically motivated ways (some southern schools, I discovered, continue to teach that slavery was not the root cause of the War) but they get it. They have a basic understanding of what happened. But World War II? The Holocaust? The Treaty of Versaiilles and the rise of Nazism? The complete devastation of the industrial powers of Europe and Asia that led to 20 years of unparalleled economic growth in the U.S.? Western nations' abandonment of Poland, exploitation of empires, and refusal to take Jewish refugees? They have nothing, really. What they know about WWII is what they get from movies and from Call of Duty video games. They often believe (thanks to films like Saving Private Ryan) that Americans fought the Nazis essentially alone. They rarely know that the Soviet Union was America's ally, and primarily responsible for the military defeat of the Third Reich. They rarely understand why or how the Holocaust happened, and the economic scapegoating of Jews and other "others" during the post-WWI economic collapse in Germany. They fail to recognize how the War accelerated decades of technological development (radar, nuclear power, aircraft, electronics, medicine, etc) into a few short years. They think – if they think anything at all about it – that America beat the Nazis and someone else (either the Chinese or Japanese) because we invented the nuclear bomb.

Everything – from international terrorism to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to 20th Century American economic growth to the housing crisis to the Vietnam War to the woes of underdeveloped countries – about the modern world can be understood completely only by tracing the roots of these events at least as far back to WWII. And increasingly I – I can't speak for anyone else here, but I doubt I am alone – find that students have the least knowledge about these more recent events. Try saying "Arab Oil Embargo" or "Mikhail Gorbachev" to a room of college freshmen and see what kind of looks you get. Hell, try it with a group of adults; it probably won't be much better. We know very little of recent history and what we do know is often wrong. Is it any wonder that opinions about current events rarely make sense?

Perhaps the recent past is deemphasized because it is assumed, incorrectly, that students somehow know this information because "it didn't happen that long ago." Or maybe the design of grade- and high school curricula continues to talk about ancient times at the expense or exclusion of the 20th Century. In either case the consequences are the same: parochial attitudes about the world and a skewed understanding of any issue that takes place outside of the bubble around our immediate lives.

70 thoughts on “OUT OF TIME”

  • I think it's not that they teach about things long past, but what they choose to teach. For example, how about if they learned about Oliver Cromwell, and discovered that the antecedents to today's evangelical Christians turned England into a religious dictatorship? Yet most of them will never hear one word about that. How about teaching them that, before Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated at the beginning of World War I, the countries of Europe had spent the last forty years engrossed in colonial competition, which benefited no one but the rich, but which left their populations filled with hatred for other European countries, easing the path to all out war? How about teaching them that the Medicis achieved dominance in Florence through exploiting religious extremism with Savonarola, and a primitive version of the trickle-down theory? I think all of these things could be very useful in preparing modern students to cope with political reality. But no, they are filled, when they are taught history at all, with largely useless information that does nothing to help them understand the world they have inherited.

  • What's frightening to me is that the situation hasn't changed since I was in high school–that is, "American History" begins where it always has ("Cotton Mather–*snore*…") and goes up to…well, my history teacher was great, but we never made it out of WWII. So Korea, McCarthyism, the Military Industrial Complex, the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Civil Rights Act, the War on Poverty, Brown v. Board of Education, Vietnam, the opening of China, Watergate–none of it. I was one of the dinks who actually read, on my own, to the end of the history text-book, but I was nigh-alone.

    And it's been 25 years since then. Which means 25 years of new material has been added to the "stuff they're not getting to because they're not changing the priorities of the lesson plans." Which leads to my students asking me, as they do, "What exactly did Hitler *do* that was so bad?" This not asked from bigotry, but sheer bewildered ignorance.

    My advice? Skip everything but 1776 and the blood sport between the Federalists and the Republicans, the Jackson Administration, the run-up to the Civil War, the failure of Reconstruction, and then skip on over to the Gilded Age and Teddy Roosevelt. Boom, get right to it–WWI and onward, and don't stop 'til the planes hit the towers. (Actually, keep going, because the narrative of the Bush administration is an example of real goddamned history-in-the-making. Not *happy* history, mind you, but that's the country we are now, and if you don't understand those 8 years, we don't make very much sense.)

  • Part of me thinks it's a conspiracy. If they teach World War II they not only have to talk about the Soviet Union's role in the war, but the racial issues back home that it set alight, and that leads straight into outright rebellion, rights for the Negro, Vietnam, God knows what else.

    But another part of me thinks that they start at the beginning and teach chronologically because they've always done it that way so it's easier to keep doing it and for their purposes it just doesn't matter what they teach anyway. If they can teach the kids that the government is their friend and everything's going to be fine if they don't think too much and don't complain and just do their job then the kids will have learned their lesson. The subjects that are taught in school are ones with a constituency; parents, ideologues, whoever, can get behind the abstract idea of teaching American history. But the people who force the kids into schools in the first place want them taught complacency. One could probably teach kids to be complacent by making them memorize Fanon or Marx as well as by making them memorize stuff about D-Day, but parents would get angry. I don't know, probably I'm just cranky tonight.

    It's true about the way the Civil War is taught in the South, by the way, and worse. I know kids that were told in 2010 that the slaves were happy and they cried in fear when the Yankees showed up because they didn't know how to take care of themselves. I had to go to an elementary school and show a teacher that South Carolina Secession thing and she still wouldn't admit that the war was about slavery. And so it goes…

  • Ah yes US History. First we'll have to agree on a single name/narrative for Civil Agressive Northern Interstate Conflicted Conflagrative Hostilities. To the victors go the right to name history, and we should have enforced that narrative.

    How about addressing that blank spanning the years 1492-1620. Because Nothing happened from the time of Columbus until the Pilgrims showed up bringing turkeys, corn, tomatoes, chocolate, squash and Jesus to the poor starving Indians. .

    How much of this is residual education policy from the 50s? Why teach what happened leading up to WW-2? Dad and grandpa can tell you, they were there.

  • Not only do some southern schools teach that slavery was not the root cause of the Civil War, but some teach that slavery had nothing to do with the Civil War at all. I went to one.

  • And high five to J. Dryden, from another dink who read to the end of the history textbook.

    I'm young enough that my U.S. history classes started with the migration of the pre-Native Americans, fast-forwarded to Jamestown, and went full bore before being bogged down for a month in the Civil War and a month, ending just two weeks before exams, going through WWII. At least, that's how my AP U.S. History class went. At least I had a teacher for that one who did well by us with what we got through. We nominally spent the last week before exams covering Korea-present day, but I think schools still assume you've either lived through it and know or your parents did and you'll ask (and they'll tell).

  • I believe Billy Joel was partially inspired to write We Didn't Start the Fire(anthem of historians everywhere) due to the fact that many American history classes only went up to WWII, if even that.

    In any case, don't expect the system to actually teach history. That's a dangerous thing. If the working classes get interested in it they might go to the library and find out all kinds of dangerous facts. "Wait, you mean that the reason why we ever had any kind of workers' rights in this country was because we had to fight for them in the streets? I was told it was because of enlightened liberals! And our post WWII economic boom was actually due to our role in the war and the accident of geography?! That means that the politicians talk about bringing back the good old days of the 50's is nothing but bullshit! And all these claims that the early 20th century being better and deregulation causing prosperity are bullshit too!!!"

    So in short, the ruling class has a strong incentive to ensure that young people get the craptacular, propaganda-laden version of history. They're not supposed to be knowledgeable; they're supposed to reach a minimum which would allow them to work in retail, fast food service, or the military.

    On an unrelated note, is it just me or did American history books spend an undue amount of time talking about corn, the planting of corn, and stressing the fact that it was also known as "maize?"

  • To me, there are precious few excuses for "not knowing". I was raised to believe that it is every Americans CIVIC FUCKING DUTY to be at least semi-informed about current and recent events. I'm no MENSA candidate, and I've always managed to do so. Hell, as the country has gotten progressively crazier, I have stepped up my game accordingly, and nowadays I pride myself on the accuracy of my personal bullshit filter. I graze the 'net voraciously, absorbing the "good shit" and eschewing the bad, regardless of where it originates(well, almost, lol), so long as it passes my smell test. If you "jes' don't know"? Then you are lazy, self-centered, and imo, shirking your duty as a citizen.

  • The only reason I knew so much about 20th century history growing up is when I was 7 or so, I got a set of vhs dubs of the BBC's "20th Century History File." (Example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TfJy_wduFy4 ) I watched those tapes over and over until they wore out.

    Using those, I learned about topics which were never covered in elementary, middle or even high school: Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, contemporary Chinese history, the Berlin Wall, the Teapot Dome scandal, Watergate, World War 2 beyond that the Nazis were bad and much more.

    If it weren't for that, and I think my experience is typical for an intercity school student in a fairly poor area, I wouldn't have been exposed to much history except for american history 1750-1870 and some random factoids about the Babylonians/Egyptians/ancient Greeks/Romans. In class, I think we covered the Civil War (American Civil War of course, the English Civil War completely unknown) and the Revolutionary War (again, American. I didn't know about the Glorious Revolution of 1688 until college) in grades 2, 3, 6, 8, 9, 10, and 11. There's not that many novel angles for the Battle of Bull Run. It's pretty boring compared to, say,

  • An understanding of the distant past is important but not as important as understanding what your grandfather, who can still vote, lived through.

    I heard tales of WWII from people who fought it and Vietnam through my father and his friends. Still, I suspect the tales of the Gulf War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are better understood by the sons and daughters of the veterans of those wars than I can possibly hope to understand.

  • Nunya, not everybody has that benefit. I had a grandfather who fought in WWII and a grandfather who fought in Vietnam, but both died (reasons completely unrelated to their service) four years before I was born. Didn't have many people around connected to those wars who were willing to talk about them.

    Being the child of an Iraq/Afghanistan veteran, though, I do feel like I'll be well-disposed to tell my children about what it was like here during the war, even if my father is reluctant to tell them about what it was like over there. He doesn't really talk about it much, and the one time he did it was pretty disturbing.

  • Monkey Business says:

    The greatest intellectual gift I was ever given was a dog-earned, annotated copy of Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States" from a family friend, while I still had time to read and absorb it.

  • I think it's a mistake for them to just assume we'll ask our crazy grandfather about boring stories about the war to get ourselves educated. Heck, growing up, I didn't even KNOW any family member was involved in a war until I was assigned an interview assignment, and discovered my grandpa was in the Korean War. He stayed in Alaska the whole time, and told me stories of what he heard from his friends, but I didn't get any useful info except that apparently it sucks to be the forward machine gun position in war.

    I still don't know what the Korean War was about, and wikipedia, for all it's usefulness, doesn't really give a nice story with context that doesn't involve having 30 different tabs open at once, skipping from one to the other like a rock on a pond.

  • Merely the fact that we are fans of this blog (meaning we had the gumption to be out finding new sources of Red Meat in the first place) speaks volumes about us.

  • @ Monkey Business – I cannot tell you how much I agree with your endorsement of Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States." I have given out over a hundred copies of it to people young and old. No mater what you learned in and school, no one quite tells the history of labor struggles in America quite like Howard Zinn.

  • Russia teaches the same history of WW2 as the United States does to its children, except it is known as The Great Patriotic War and the Red Army did all the fighting against the Fascists. The U.S.A.'s role was limited to sending Spam to the Motherland.
    Irritating facts like Stalin's pro- German policy before June 22, 1941 or the West supplying most of the Red Army's trucks and a good part of its air force are not brought up.

  • Interesting. The UK is generally agreed to have the opposite problem of Too Much Hitler in school history classes. The good news is that most British kids know at least something about the Treaty of Versailles, the Holocaust, alliance with the USSR, etc. The bad news is that they're still pretty ignorant about anything after 1945. Defeat Hitler, roll credits, the end.

    This is understandable. It really was a moment that the UK can be proud of — not only did they start fighting the Nazis over 2 years before the Americans, for about a year in 1940-41 they were the only major power to continue fighting them. So it's much less complicated to teach than the decades of decolonization, industrial unrest, and conflict in Northern Ireland which came after. The recent arguments over how to remember Margaret Thatcher showed that there is no consensus at all over events from 25 or 30 years ago.

    But concentration on WW2 also feeds the tendency to mythologize and oversimplify. Britain was awesome in 1939-45, so it can go on being awesome. Foreign policy problems can be understood as epic struggles of good against evil. Other European countries were evil aggressors (the Germans), incompetent victims (the French), or both (the Italians). These attitudes are not exactly fit for the complexity of the modern age.

  • I've been on two committees over my years of teaching history about the scope and sequence of World History classes, and each time it was the argument between teaching from pre-Greece/Rome to the modern day chronologically or teaching a Modern History class. In each case the Greece and Rome won out. Since no one really checks on what I teach, or anyone actually, I skipped over great swaths of history so as to have taught Industrial Revolution, WWI, Rise of Fascism and WWII during third quarter leaving fourth quarter for post-WWII. Even at that, there isn't enough time to do most of it justice and if anyone ever checked up on what I was teaching…….

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Well, no worries – Michelle Rhee, with her Billionaire backers, are here to make sure that today's kids stay stupid and ignorant enough to be taken advantage of.

    And, history is taught chronologically, because of causality.

    With the hope that, if you understand yesterday, you'll better understand today.

    And that, unlike Europe, or the Orient, where there are thousands of years of documented history, in the USA, outside of a few groups in Central and South America, there is no Trojan War, no Xia or Shang dynasties, to learn from.

    So, almost literally, except for what little the Mayans and Aztec's, and a few other groups, left behind, or, their Catholic invaders allowed to survive from "The Heathens," for all intent's and purposes, American history begins with the Vikings, and/or Columbus.
    And the current majority of Americans are able to trace their roots back to Europe. Europe, with all of its thousands of years of documented battles, invasions, holocausts, and religious and tribal wars.
    And we wonder why we're such a violent nation?

    I'm 55, and first generation, so I know first hand of my families odyssey from Poltava, Ukraine, and Stalingrad, Russia, to Germany during WWII – and to America afterwards.

    My grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, made sure my sister, cousins, and I, knew what they went through – and my parent's, my sister, and I, made sure to tell her children, my niece and nephew.

    And, you can trace Hitler's invasion of Russia, not only back to Napoleon, but back to the Huns and Mongols and Vikings, and probably before that.

    And the Greek's BC infighting during The Peloponnesian War is still important because we're still fighting amongst ourselves, here in the US, like the Greeks did.

    And there are internal forces that are trying to turn America, from a modern, more inclusive, form of Athenian democracy, into an Authoritarian Spartan military dictatorship.

    History teaches us, that while times change, people don't.

    And that Goerge W. Bush's hubris, and feeling that God(s) had his back, was little different in invading Iraq, than the Greek's getting mired in a 10 year war, with Troy.
    Or how, centuries later, in 415 BC, Athens dispatched a massive expeditionary force to attack Syracuse in Sicily, whcih failed disastrously, with the destruction of the entire force in 413 BC, and the subsequent fall of Athens as a major power in that part of the, then, much smaller, world.

    Maybe we need to teach history backwards, so that, like a mystery novel which tells us 'who done it' at the beginning, and the 'why' afterwards, is a better method to start to teach it.

    All I can end this with, is that I'm sure Helen of Sparta, then Troy, was a hell of a lot better looking, than Saddam Hussein.
    But, then again, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
    History teaches us that, too.

  • I shared this post on G+, and the first comment I get is "how come some people _do_ get it? What are they or their environment doing right?"

    I think this is a very important question, and got the following tl;dr anwering it:

    To put things in order, our world is complicated. And the globalized world is more complicated than it was fifty or a hundred (or five hundred) years ago. So "getting it" is difficult, and is not something we should expect everyone to be able to achieve. But there is a continuum between "getting it" and "not getting it", which makes the argument (and the presentation of it) much less elegant and not as catchy. But if we want to get into the details, we need to tell it as it is.

    Tying back into Ed's post, up until WWII our world behaved pretty linearly- cause and effect could usually be understood in relatively simple terms, alliances and enmities were usually quite clear, and most systems were relatively simple. You can teach history up to WWII more or less (some would say until the end of the war, others would stop at the Great Depression) without resorting to very complex arguments or "A says X, but B claims Y". But communication and transportation technologies exploded from roughly that timeframe, and everything became more complicated. Most major events that happened in the last 50~60 years need a whole web of inter-relating stories to start explaining what happened and why. Add to it the fact that the rate of change is increasing (either due to technology or because complexity accelerates change), and the fact that a lot of research is still on-going (and a lot of the relevant documents are not yet public, or are hidden within masses of other stuff). Understanding and teaching post-WWII history is difficult.

    Another source of difficulty is post-modernism. When your thinking framework is "competing narratives" and not "what the heck happened", there is a lot more room for judgement calls, selections and omissions, and coloring "history" with ideological flavors. This makes modern history a much more loaded subject in schools, and schools tend to avoid such areas. This, in turn, means that in order to become adults with some understanding of modern issues, you need to have had a family (or other environment) that actively sought to educate you in this field. And they need to be able to do it in a level that you can understand, and they need to have a good enough working knowledge of the subject to not make it a joke (or make it sound like they're preaching).

    So yes, I know people who "get it" to a much greater level than the average kid (or college student, or adult). And they are usually those guys who enjoyed reading history books and newspapers as kids, instead of playing basketball / arcades / Atari / PC games / Playstation (choose your age group) or just hanging out with their friends.

  • Graduated high school in 1977 from an honors program. I never did find out who won WWII. We made it just past Pearl Harbor.

  • Middle Seaman says:

    Bullseye Ed! Also avalanche of comments and words. First, engineering schools have a different core: math, physics and chem.

    Recent history is way more controversial than old history. Although the Civil War started two centuries ago it is still raging thanks mainly to the Republican Party. Vietnam is still divides similarly to the CV, but it ended and the crowds on both sides differ somewhat.

    US haven’t seen a war on its territory for ages. It's peace on earth in the US. We don't even have to serve in the military. Mainly the poor serve. Ignorance of everything around you is cheap in peace. Peace causes a lot of the ignorance.

  • gulag; I'm second-generation American, most of why I have any knowledge of history whatsoever. I know why my ancestors left their homelands because they told me about it. I also had the fortune to grow up in Hawaii in the 1970s, when there were still many people living who had survived Pearl Harbor. There were still concrete bunkers on the island (now used for other things) and there were neighbors who could speak about being interned in camps for the sin of being of Japanese ancestry.

    School history was worthless; as as been stated earlier; we started every year in Mesopotamia, and spent the last week of school frantically cramming US history from the Civil War to WWI (we never made it to WWII).

    I'm trying very hard to convey to my own children exactly what Ronnie Raygun and the Bush dynasty were all about. I remember; I lived through it.

  • darwinsbeard says:

    This is totally right on. I remember in my sophomore year of my teacher was SHOCKED when the first question on the AP U.S. history test was about the Clinton sex scandal. That was in 2008. We barely got to Reagan.

  • How about this… give 6 books that are riveting and gives a slice of history that expands a person's point of view.

    A Dark and Bloody River would be one that I would read

  • I'm guessing you don't get a lot of students from California. Our state standards for the high school history curriculum start at the Industrial Revolution and end with globalization. Maybe that's why we're a blue state. ;)

  • I think James Loewen has it right here: to the powers that run schools, the point of history class is not to educate or liberate, but to instill civic pride and patriotism. There's still too much living contention over modern events — Vietnam, oil crisis, propping up Latin American dictators, and the aforementioned Presidential Penis — to settle on one common and uniform patriotic pride reading.

    Modern history has too many warts for primary school textbooks to handle.

  • I always think of the civil war as the"War of Southern Treason".
    Good point about teaching 9/11. We remember it so we don't have to learn it, they weren't around, so they need to be brought up to speed. Surprisingly, a lot of adults/educators don't get this concept.

  • @cu

    Families passing on history to younger members isn't real reliable. Feel blessed that your family was wired to tell stories like that. My mother just mostly wanted to forget the past, so information had to be pried from her with a lot of effort. My dad was great, he remembered everything, kept in touch with crazy relatives and wrote stuff down. His own brother, my uncle, is wired completely differently, and history just does not matter to him, in fact when trying to get information from him I realized I knew more than he did.

    My dad died seventeen years ago. All that stuff that he wrote down was thrown out by Mom and Uncle. Not with malice, they just did not get it.

  • "some southern schools, I discovered, continue to teach that slavery was not the root cause of the War"

    What?! You mean the Civil War wasn't about state's rights?!

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Surly Duff,
    When I lived down in NC in the early 00's, and drove down on a business trip to SC, I also heard it called, "The War Of Manners" there – I sh*t thee not.

    As if it was we Yankees who were insufferable rude to try to insist that the rich white Southerners stop owning black human beings as slaves.

    Well, maybe we need to remind our Southerners again of who, after they slapped us in the face with their glove and challenged us to a duel for our insufferable rudeness, exactly won that f*cking duel?

    Lincolns greatest mistake was in not telling Grant to order Sherman that, after burning EVERY f*cking thing to the ground, and hanging EVERY single traitorous sesesh rebel from the nearest tree, before burning the trees down too, and then proceed to salt every square foot of the earth South of the Mason-Dixon line – with the exception of the loyal states, and territories, who stayed with The Union. And could prove it.

    The peckerwoods down there still think they're fighting "The War Of Manners" almost 150 years after we beat the living sh*t out of them, and weren't just gracious and mannerly in that we didn't kill them all, but gave them a helping hand in rebuilding, instead.

    How RUDE can we Yankees possibly be?

    Not as rude as the ungrateful Southerners still are.
    Every ignorant peckerwood down there wants to pack an assault weapon to fight the same government that beat them up when all that government had was more trains, more artillery, and more soldiers, and not coming back to reteach the lesson that should have been learned 150 years ago, with more helicopters, more jets, more tanks – and drones.

    So, best be careful out there, Bubba, and your mannerly sesesh militia buddies, and your AR-15's, or else you might have to say "hello" to that incoming drone sent by the black human being currently in the WHITE House!
    You'd better hope your aim is perfect.
    But even if your aim is, I'm sure the novie we'll be watching after it's all over will be called "Red Mist," and not, "Red Dawn III."

  • Just another "yup." I teach a course on social movements and contentious politics right now, an upper-level class that students select based on their interests.

    A few weeks ago, I made a reference to "the events in Seattle in 1999." They were all kids then, and none of it registered.

  • History is like the blind men and the elephant with the addition of various one eyed men busily applying plaster to the parts they want to feel different. A horrible mixed metaphor but it about sums it up.

  • I graduated high school in 1989. In our district junior year history was U.S. History. I can't speak for every class but we made it through WWII and into the 50s. We spent a little time on Korea, the Eisenhower administration and the early Cold War.

    I remember thinking even then at the age of 16 that two semesters of U.S. History wasn't enough to cover the topic. As a child of a Vietnam veteran I had learned nothing of what was happening then. I took an elective class my senior year that filled in some of the blanks but most people didn't.

  • History is the art of making stories that enable is to support a particular point of view. There is no limit to the number of stories. How many books are there treating the Civil War? Does anyone think that there will be no more? Schools, as one contributor points out, are designed to have students sit in rows, keep quiet and ingest the material being proffered. For the most part this seems to produce complacency and obedience. Curiosity is not fostered and skepticism, critical thinking and the like are in many areas of the country considered dangerous to the health of the society. I was a young man during the McCarthy and HUAC purges and loyalty oaths. I can tell you that it scared me. As a teacher for most of my life, I kept my critical thoughts out of the classroom. I was no Howard Zinn, but I had lots of company.

  • Frank, your suggestion got me rooting through my Kindle and Amazon purchase history, as I've spent the last couple of years trying to remedy the thinness of my education in history and economics. At any rate, here's a list of books I found challenging and thought stimulating:

    The Great Sea: A human history of the Mediterranean by Abulafia

    Debt: the first 5,000 years by Graeber

    On Politics: A history of of political thought from Herodotus to the present by Ryan

    Empires and Barbarians: The fall of Rome and the birth of Europe by Heather

    Revolution in Time by Landes

    1493: Uncovering the new world Columbus created by Mann

    Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith

    The Reformation: a very short history by Marshall

    French Revolution, 1789 -1795 by McPhee

    The Reactionary Mind: conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin by Robin

    The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective by Allen

    What Hath God Wrought: the transformation of America, 1815-1848 by Howe

    Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the great West by Cronon

    Lords of Finance: The bankers who broke the world, by Ahamed

    The Party: the secret world of China's communist rulers by McGregor

    Wealth and Poverty of Nations by Landes

    Griftopia: Bubble machines, vampire squids, and the long con that is breaking America by Taibbi

    Thinking the 20th Century, and Ill Fares the Land, both by Tony Judt

    Thinking, Fast and Slow by Kahneman [if you think that doesn't belong on a list of history and economics reading, think again]

    Plus Paul Krugman for explaining Keynes and IS/LM and liquidity trap and…

  • The depth of understanding of current events we (the commenters here and similar) would all desire is a product of lifelong learning. Most of us had a lot of exposure to History and current events once basic learning skills in reading had been finished in grade 3 or 4. Geography "units" were taught in the grade school I attended in the late 50's and had a decent amount of the historical background of the area. A lot of this was oriented around the world struggle of the Red colored "commie" areas on the map vs the blue "democracies" and the polka dotted "3rd world" areas.

    Quite a bit of current event coverage in the newspapers included some historical context as did magazines such as Look and Life and National Geographic.

    Some of you have commented on how relatives passed on history lessons. There was some of that but not enough. One of the best things we can do is to encourage that sort of discussion by our relatives and friends in the presence of children. As a child I had no context to realize just how much interesting information (culturally German immigrants from Russia – came to the U.S. just prior to WWI) could be gleaned from my Grandparents. When I had the context, they were no longer there. I wish my parents had thought to make sure I knew their stories first hand.

    Still, it wasn't until we got interested in hunting down the terrorist cells in Afghanistan that I read more about the "Graveyard of Empires" and what that meant. I was watching some talking heads on one of the news channels (not Fox) this morning. Someone was describing how the British lost virtually everyone on their retreat from Afghanistan in 1842. Other talking heads are surprised at this NEWS! "Didn't know that." Still, despite these brief historical factoids, no historical context was given because it was time for the report on the possibility of airport delays and it would take 20 minutes of air time to provide the detail needed. Never going to happen.

    Sorry. I ramble. Still, I'd give a fair amount of my wealth to go down the alley behind my grandparents house and talk with my grandfather and his pinochle playing, beer drinking friends about their childhood, their immigration to the U.S., their experiences in WWI, etc. I'd give even more if my grand-daughter could join me.

  • Sigh…

    "Russia teaches the same history of WW2 as the United States does to its children, except it is known as The Great Patriotic War"

    The GPW(VOV in Russian) is the name for the part of WWII that involved the USSR, not the whole war itself.

    "and the Red Army did all the fighting against the Fascists."

    The Red Army did most of the fighting against the Fascists. Over 70-80% of Werhmacht forces alone were destroyed on the Eastern Front. You don't need to read Russian to know this- David M. Glantz wrote an entire book about it(When Titans Clashed). In fact he breaks down the numbers in several of his works, but When Titans Clashed is more friendly to the public.

    "The U.S.A.'s role was limited to sending Spam to the Motherland."

    Which Russian books are you reading? More importantly, what is more egregious- not fully discussing the effects of lend-lease aid(which began to show up in significant numbers in 1942), or ignoring the fact that a particular country sacrificed between 25-27 million people fighting virtually alone for several years?

    "Irritating facts like Stalin's pro- German policy before June 22, 1941 or the West supplying most of the Red Army's trucks and a good part of its air force are not brought up."

    Again incorrect. On the matter of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, many people love to cite it but few who actually know anything about the subject are prepared to explain what the alternative could have been at that time.

    The issue of trucks actually led to the use of the names Studebaker and Willys in common Russian lexicon. That is a far cry from not bringing this up.

  • How much of this is because the education system presumes complete ignorance (as should be expected of 5 year olds) and tries to construct knowledge from simple processes and patterns? This works quite well for abstract concepts like math, but history is more like a computer program that has already been written, re-written, and is still actively running with lots of bugs. The best approach with those programs is to work backwards from the symptom toward to the core, not to re-explain the history of computing to figure out why your results are off by one. I see a lot of comments on this article talking about changing the starting point. I think it makes more sense to change the direction. There is a significant risk in further politicizing the education system by starting in the present, but I think we could start the younger kids X years ago and work backwards and then take the older kids and move forward from X to present.

  • CrankyPants says:

    In high school I took a physics class and there was a bit of a dust up between the teacher and administration, they wanted him to teach us physics *without* algebra or geometry. It was a college-prep course for seniors but..

    The mind. It boggles. o_O

    Literacy and math are powerful tools, but they're mostly taught in a vacuum. It's like taking a shop class where you learn to use the saws, drills, levels, and hammers but you never build anything. Imagine the frustration of spending weeks learning how to create dovetail joints, install hinges, etc. without ever knowing that they can be used to create a cabinet or chest of drawers. Now multiply that frustration by a decade, almost anyone who went to school in the US knows that feeling: it's futility.

    Meanwhile, most students learn history as a collection of oddball facts for a multiple choice test and science as vague generalities and rote memorization until high school (and you'll only really get research and writing in your history and math in your science if you're college track). It's a tragic waste of time and young intellects.

  • grumpygradstudent says:

    I teach an intro class on urban policy. I know that I got basically zero information about the development of modern U.S. cities in my high school classes, but (IMHO), that body of knowledge is absolutely crucial to understanding modern race relations and social policy.

    By the way, I didn't learn this stuff in undergrad or grad school either. I had to teach myself after I was assigned this course to teach. The United States makes a shitload more sense now.

  • My 17 year old son is currently finishing AP US History (11th grade) after taking AP European History last year. He has a remarkably good handle on history–better than my own–but this morning, we had a fun and interesting interchange. This week, they are assessing which presidents were misjudged by history. He was reading about Nixon and comparing some of the good things he did (creating the EPA, continuing much of LBJ's Great Society, manipulating Moscow and Beijing to the US's advantage) with all of the bad but I brought up for his consideration Saint Ronnie, who is credited by his minions and much of the cowed world of presidential historians with basically saving the world. All the while, they ignore Grenada, Iran/Contra, and his tripling the national debt (among his other accomplishments).

    The best thing my son is coming to learn (from school, blogs, Jon Stewart and me) is that the world is a complicated place, that simple explanations are unlikely to be accurate and that sometimes the best you can do isn't all that great.

    I have high hopes for him.

  • Bitter Scribe says:

    This makes me think of an old joke:

    "Things were easier when you were in school, Grandpa."

    "Why do you say that, Johnny?"

    "Because you didn't have as much history to learn."

  • Until about a month ago I had no concept of how awful things were for the German people (especially those in former East Prussian territories) after WWII. German-speaking families, some of whom had been living in those territories for hundreds of years, were kicked out of what is Poland today and forced into refugee camps before they were resettled in Germany proper. Thousands were killed, raped, and otherwise mistreated. 500 people in the town of Schönlanke committed suicide when they heard the Russian troops were going to march through the city. It was terrible.

    Never a peep about any of that in our history classes. It's like we decided that all Germans got what they deserved after the war even though millions of them were just innocent farmers living hundreds of miles away from Germany.

  • Most history classes are taught chronologically because that's how
    the textbook is written. I don't know about most schools, but in my school history class was taught by the football coach and the administration basically handed him a textbook and told him to stay a few chapters ahead of the kids.

  • SeaTea: The expulsion of the ethnic German population of Eastern Europe was indeed horrible, even if it is pretty understandable. Probably 15 million ethnic Germans were forced out of areas where they'd lived for centuries; at least 3 million didn't survive the process. This is still a problem for Germany and the Czech Republic, because the decrees expropriating German-owned property are still on the books and the German government is pressing the Czechs to rescind them.

    On the other hand, while the _Vertreibung aus dem Osten_ was a horrible crime against humanity, it did come on the heels of far worse crimes committed by the German government against, well, pretty much every nationality in Eastern Europe. Long story short: don't launch genocidal wars of conquest, and if you do, don't lose. Especially don't lose to Josef Stalin's Red Army.

  • @Delbort beat me to it. In many (if not most) high schools, history teachers all have the same name — "Coach." Some of these make excellent teachers regardless, but for the most part they are paid to win games, not shape minds, and have little interest or inclination for the subject.

  • That "random collection of factoids without context" just about sums up my formal historical education.

    I don't know much, still, and have taken a screen shot of Mo's reading list. I just wish it were a bit shorter ;)

    I'd like to add Rats Lice and History by Hans Zinsser


    Guns Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

    to the list.

    Some of human history has been shaped by pathogens.

  • @major

    The polite term for a person of Northern extraction who is here on a temporary basis (such as yourself) is Yankee.

    The traditional term for such a person who comes and stays is DamnYankee (one word.)

    I would say that our Black Mississippian friend was being polite :-)


    P.S. – with our buddy cundgulag or bernard fulminatin' about the South – peckerwoods, crackers, etc. – hang in there, you can take it if I can….

  • @cranky: that about summed up my experience of math. It was when I started studying GIS that I came to understand trig. Now I can work my way around a triangle :) That's the advantage of shop class. The learning is tangible.

    Education needs to work on integrated learning model. Why am I learning English grammar? Then when I get into my for.lang class they explicitly join the dots between the two.

    Imagine giving kids a theodolite and sent out to measure stuff for geometry? Then have them use other pieces of equipment to solve an equation. Give them practical things to do like design a piece of packaging w a mocked up model…

    But that would make sense…

  • Re: Bitter Scribe's old joke —

    "Things were easier when you were in school, Grandpa."

    "Why do you say that, Johnny?"

    "Because you didn't have as much history to learn."

    In high school I once made a comment saying as much to my father. I was not joking, and he was not laughing.

  • What, no Simpsons:

    (End of school year)
    Teacher: [when the bells ring] "Wait a minute! You didn't learn how World War II ended!"
    [The class waits expectantly.]
    Teacher: "We won!"
    Class: [running out of the building cheering] "Yay! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!"

    I guess going to an International High School (from the International Baccalaureate) I got a little better scope, we had a full year of 'History of the Americas' and barely got through modern US as we spend time following poor Simon Bolivar through South America (conquering one country then another, while the last one revolts

  • "German-speaking families, some of whom had been living in those territories for hundreds of years, were kicked out of what is Poland today and forced into refugee camps before they were resettled in Germany proper. Thousands were killed, raped, and otherwise mistreated. 500 people in the town of Schönlanke committed suicide when they heard the Russian troops were going to march through the city. It was terrible."

    Hey did your history class tell you how that war STARTED? It seems like you weren't aware so let me remind you. Germany invaded Poland then ethnically cleansed the Wartheland and initiated Operation Tannenberg, which would eventually lead to the death of 2 million Poles. In the Holocaust, nearly all of the Polish Jewry, 3 million people, would be wiped out.

    They inflicted a humiliating defeat on Greece and committed numerous atrocities in that country. In Yugoslavia they armed some of the most bloodthirsty thugs in history, the Croatian Ustasi, and their manipulation of ethnic groups in Yugoslavia laid the foundation for the atrocities of the 1990's.

    They invaded the USSR with the intent to destroy as much as 80 million people(their own estimate) and resettle it with German farmers. In the end it would cost between 25-30 million lives for the Soviet peoples. Many of these deaths were civilians, a great number of them killed thanks to Hitler's Commissar Order, which mandated the immediate shooting of Jews, Communist party members, Commissars, Gypsies, etc. and the Jurisdiction Order, which absolved all German forces in the USSR from prosecution for a whole list of crimes including rape and murder. Yes, that's why you don't hear about German rape on the Eastern front from Western sources(which are typically based on German sources and memoirs), because nobody was ever prosecuted for it. On the other hand, rape was criminalized in the Red Army, however poorly this was enforced. A number of eyewitness accounts do attest to officers shooting soldiers on the spot for rape.

    So when one talks about the ethnic cleansing of Germans in Eastern Europe, it is important to remember a few key facts:

    1. One of the main architects of this idea was Winston Churchill, who said that things would be better if all the Germans were in one continuous territory so that they wouldn't have some populations abroad to "protect"(this was a common Nazi pretext for annexation and war).

    2. Did these farmers complain when they received stolen land from the government? Did they complain when they received slave labor from the USSR or France?

    3. Look at how they treated the Soviet populace. What should they have expected.

    Obviously it was unfair and on an individual level many innocent people died, but it is a war, and in particular it is a war Germany started. I remind you of the words of Sir Arthur Harris, on the subject of bombing of civilian targets:

    "The Nazis entered this war under the rather childish delusion that they were going to bomb everyone else, and nobody was going to bomb them. At Rotterdam, London, Warsaw and half a hundred other places, they put their rather naive theory into operation. They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind."

    I would not teach what you have mentioned to high school students unless you want to have a lot of neo-Nazis on your hands, who were taught in school that the Germans were victims and not perpetrators.

  • I remember thinking some of the exact same things as a late teen/young adult. Picking up a book and seeing Soviet and US soldiers shaking hands when they met in Germany and thinking "why didn't we learn about this?"

    I think you're right; in my experience, it has a lot to do with chronology. I had one teacher, to his credit, who started with the 60's — probably to relive his glory days, knowing he'd never get to it if he didn't start there — before rewinding to reconstruction. Of course we had no idea what there was to reconstruct because the previous course didn't make it to the civil war.

  • The educational system really is keeping kids ignorant, because the people who run America want us dumb. That's not a conspiracy theory. The people who run America have openly stated, over and over again, that that is their goal. The Powell Memorandum is probably the most important example, since it's an actual policy document stating that the 1% need to sabotage academia. _God and Man at Yale_ is a more popular work, in which Buckley states outright that universities should be indoctrination centers.

    In high school, the football coach is the history teacher, but in a university the situation can be worse. I was on the curriculum committee (of a Bible-belt state U.) at a time when we were revising the core curriculum, and I suggested that we might want to make a critical thinking course be part of the core. This caused an uproar- one of the other professors quite literally screamed in my face the instant the words "how about a critical thinking course?" came out of my mouth.

    If you teach at the university level, you also end up going to a lot of teaching workshops. Some of these can be quite good, but others are unsettling. It's fairly common to go to mandatory workshops taught by silicon snake-oil salesmen. These people waste an hour screaming at you that you're incompetent because you have students raise their hand to ask questions in class, rather than using Twitter. (If you aren't in academia, you might think that's a humorous exaggeration. You'd be wrong.) These same education experts are sometimes aggressively and openly anti-intellectual. I remember one who bragged that he never reads, because he hates reading, and that made him smarter than all the other professors in the room, somehow.

  • @Arslan

    Luftwaffe aircraft conducted "Terror-bombing raids"

    RAF aircraft "De-housed the work force"

    Actual British terminology from the time period.

  • Some folks upthread mentioned A People's History of the United States; there's an OCR'd copy available at HistoryIsAWeapon.com, which had Zinn's approval before he died. The OCR has some problems, but it's readable. (It's how I read it–baked it into an epub on my phone–and I managed to make it throught.)

    I'm still feeling weirded out by how important a credible threat of violent revolution is to actually improving people's lives, while actual violent revolution tends to make things way worse… and of how close this country has been, regularly, to collapsing into a dictatorship, or chaos, or revolution.

  • Actually the Germans used the term "terror bombing" and the term dehousing was used informally in one conversation. And again, Arthur Harris was right. Keep in mind that the Germans practiced planned, mass bombing of cities even before the war started- Guernica was bombed by the German Condor Legion. That's why, as the story goes, when a German looked at Guernica and asked Picasso "who did this," Picasso replied, "You did."

  • After the Luftwaffe firebombed Coventry, Goebbels allowed stories to go out where they actually used the word "Coventrieren" as the goal of the German air campaign. To "Coventry-ize" other English cities.

    Within three years, Hamburg itself would be "Coventry-ized," and Goebbels stopped using that term.

  • Not defending the Germans.

    I'm just saying that if the British thought it moral and upright, why couch it in euphemism? Why not just say "Sure, we're incinerating hausfraus and kinder but it's for the greater good."

    Harris and Hap Arnold were both wrong. Right up until Normandy they were protesting that no invasion of Europe was necessary because strategic bombing was going to knock the Germans out of the war shortly.

    They killed a bunch of civilians and took horrific losses of men and equipment for questionable military gains.

  • Not true. First of all the term dehousing was used in one paper. Second, whether Harris and Arnold were wrong about the strategic concept, the moral question had been answered by the Germans themselves. Were the Brits and Americans somehow immoral just because it turned out they had the resources to bomb cities better than the Germans had? Need I also mention that more civilians died in the bombing of Stalingrad on 23 August 1942 before ground forces had even assaulted the city, than were killed at Dresden? Why is it papers still mention Dresden every 13 February but not Stalingrad, or in fact any city bombed by the Germans?

    As for questionable military gains, this is also answered by none other than Albert Speer, who pointed out that this diverted hundreds of fighters and thousands of guns with hundreds of thousands of shells from the Eastern Front where the Germans needed them the most. In fact, the Battle of Kursk was seen as the first Eastern front campaign where the Red Air Force actually had air superiority over the Germans. This was due to the need for fighters to defend against the coming invasion of Italy and Sicily, but also to defend against daylight bombing raids. By 1944, these bombing raids would eventually wreck Germany's day fighter force.

  • Way back in the '70's, when I was a newspaper reporter in Augusta, Ga, I knew a coworker with a degree from the U. of South Carolina. She did not know who was on which side in WW II. I was speechless when I learned that.

  • Phoenician in a time of Romans says:

    It's also interesting to play good games covering the era (PLUG the Europa Universalis and Hearts of Iron range, both by Paradox), not so much because of the history they do contain (and they do) but because it lets you put those facts in context. I've learned a hell of a lot after getting into those games by going back and reading the stuff I thought I already knew.

  • The people on this thread make me infinetly grateful to the history teachers I had in my central Wisconsin public school in the 1990s (things might be a lot different now). Sure, we didn't spend a lot of time on the 20th century in 8th grade, but I got some of that in 7th, and again in 11th. We also got a lot of information about the labor and civil rights movements.

    Classroom walls were filled with timelines and references to resources that were touched on in curriculum, and I never had a history teacher that was primarily a coach – all those people either taught gym or driver's ed.

  • Late to the party here but I have to say that, at least in Massachusetts, high school students are supposed to be taught/exposed to US history up to and through the 21st Century.

    I am a product of the "old school" eg. we'll get to it if we have time, student of history…and to a certain extent there is something to be said for that…that is, you get into more detail/discussion/study of that history of America, the drawback being you don't get into the last 30,40 or 50 years of American history due to time conflicts.

    We went to a "pacing schedule" about a decade or so back…we teach US 1 (roughly the Revolutionary War to WW1) to freshmen and then US2 (the 1920's to current day) to sophomores.

    Much is probably lost in the speed of the courses but we do cover American history from 1776-2000 at least in practice/theory.

Comments are closed.