There is a Saturday Night Live skit from the early 1990s in which Jerry Seinfeld plays the role of a U.S. history teacher. His students have done poorly on a test about the Second World War, believing, for example, that the Nazis constructed the Berlin Wall. The students struggle to locate Europe on a world map and one girl repeatedly reminds Seinfeld that he had said that they wouldn’t have to know historical dates. It is a very funny parody and Seinfeld resignedly agrees to let one student bring in his copy of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” so the class can “learn” about the Nazis.
A report released earlier this year by the conservative American Enterprise Institute entitled, “Still at Risk: What Students Don’t Know, Even Now”, makes it clear that the type of historical ignorance Seinfeld confronted in his make-believe classroom, is unfortunately a life imitating art scenario that is all too common in our high schools.
The AEI report, based on a telephone survey of 17-year-olds, found that almost 20 percent of 1,200 respondents didn’t know who our enemy was in World War II. About a quarter thought Columbus sailed after 1750 and about half didn’t know that Senator Joseph McCarthy investigated alleged communists.
When asked other fundamental questions about history the respondents fared just as poorly. Nearly a quarter of those surveyed could not identify Adolph Hitler. Fewer than half could place the American Civil War in the correct half-century. Only two-thirds knew that the Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of speech and religion.
Many adults would be surprised to learn that high school students often cannot read a paragraph and then explain it in a sentence or two without looking back at the material. Students may remember a few words, but frequently they cannot grasp main points. They can read and decode words but they don’t comprehend what they read because they lack a context upon which to build. It is like listening to a foreign language in which you are not fluent but know a number of words. You may pick up bits and pieces but it’s difficult to really grasp what is being said.
Historical textbooks and stories typically presume that students understand what has come before. Parisians’ decision to storm the Bastille, thus setting off the French Revolution, would make little sense without an understanding of the preceding events.
At some point as a child in school I had to memorize multiplication tables through twelve, a poem about sportsmanship, and the states and their capitals (though there were only 48 at the time). I can still recite the tables and the poem, but confess I’ll miss a state and a capital or two if pressed.
Memorizing multiplication figures helped me to estimate numbers and laid a foundation for more complex math. From working through the sportsmanship poem, I was compelled to think about the author’s message and digest his ideas. Finally, knowing names of states and capitals sparked my interest to learn more about those areas, either when I visited or read about them.
When I was in elementary school, it was taken on faith that children should memorize things. Dates were important too. Columbus discovered America in 1492 when he sailed the ocean blue. The Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776 and Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride the year before signaled the colonists that the British were coming. (I subsequently learned that Revere wouldn’t have shouted that “the British are coming,” though, since we were all subjects of Britain at the time).
The American Civil War lasted from 1861-1865. The United States entered World War I in 1917 and the Second World War in 1941 when Pearl Harbor was bombed.
We can provide students a context in which to understand, expand, and eventually critically evaluate historical information. That will only happen, however, if we first agree upon and insist that there is a band of essential historical information that all students must learn. We might begin with the dates 1861-1865.