Lost in the Past

Roundup
tags: education, civics, war, Memorial Day



Timothy Egan worked for 18 years as a writer for The New York Times, first as the Pacific Northwest correspondent, then as a national enterprise reporter. Mr. Egan is the author of five books, including “The Good Rain: Across Time and Terrain in the Pacific Northwest,” and “Lasso the Wind, Away to the New West.”

Ask a high school senior what the Great War was all about and you’re likely to get a shrug or a stab based on a recent episode of “Game of Thrones.” Hint: its 100th anniversary is this year. Hint: globe-straddling old empires collapsed and new horrors, from genocide to slaughter by poisonous gas, were ushered in. Hint: its repercussions are with us still, from Syria to Russia to the American role as international cop.

If you said “First World War,” you’re at the top of the class. The perception that we’re raising a nation of doofi about the past was generated, in part, by a 2010 report that only 12 percent of students in their last year of high school had a firm grasp of our nation’s history. Add to that a 2011 Pew study showing that nearly half of Americans think the main cause of the Civil War was a dispute over federal authority — not slavery — and you’ve got a serious national memory hole.

But before blaming the victims, look at the top. Opinion leaders, corporate titans, politicians, media personalities and educators — dunce caps for all. Even the History Channel now does very little history, with a menu heavy on swamp people, big rigs and pawn stars...

I asked a couple of the nation’s premier time travelers, the filmmaker Ken Burns and his frequent writing partner Dayton Duncan, why so many Americans can’t even place the Civil War in the right half-century, or think we fought alongside the Germans in World War II.

Burns said it’s because many schools no longer stress “civics,” or some variation of it. Why? Students complain that it’s boring, or the standards are too demanding. Civics, said Burns, is “the operating system” for citizenry; if you know how government is constructed, it’s no longer a complicated muddle, but a beautiful design...




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