The 9-11 Anniversary Was a Missed Opportunity for American Teachers


Mr. Stern served as historian at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston from 1977 to 1999.

James Loewen, keynote speaker at the annual conference of the National Council for the Social Studies, attacked lies in American history and ridiculed the notion of "God Bless America." "The Swedes, the Kenyans," he proclaimed, "don't think God blesses America over all other countries."

Is it possible that no one in the audience saw through this nonsense? "God Bless America" is not an assertion of entitlement; rather it is an invocation, a prayer asking for the blessing of God. Swedes and Kenyans are equally entitled to seek that blessing. Loewen's reception by the NCSS is hardly surprising. As Diane Ravitch wrote in 1997, 81.5 percent of American social studies teachers did not major or minor in history and most do not have degrees in any academic field. It shows.

In the rush to "understand" the September 11 attacks, social studies gurus have bungled a stunning opportunity to teach the history of American constitutionalism. "It was not self-evident in 1776," historian Lance Banning wrote in 1987, "that all men are created equal, that governments derive their just authority from popular consent, or that good governments exist in order to protect God-given rights. These concepts are not undeniable in any age. From the point of view of eighteenth-century Europeans, they contradicted common sense. The notions that a sound society could operate without natural subordination, where men were either commoners or nobles, or that a stable government could be based on elections, seemed both frightening and ridiculously at odds with the obvious lessons of the past."

How did James Madison grasp, in 1788, a reality that Marxists and social studies "experts" fail to understand two centuries later? "If men were angels," he wrote, "no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself."

Why did Americans develop such beliefs at a time when no other country lived by them? The question itself is dead on arrival in the world of multicultural education because it suggests American exceptionalism. This multiculruralist perspective has, in effect, become a rationalization for the most reactionary movement in the world today. As historian Bernard Lewis recently observed: Muslim societies reject the separation of church and scare, reject equality for women, reject equality (and even tolerance) for homosexuals (routinely buried alive during the Taliban regime), reject freedom of speech, thought and religion, reject foreign cultural influences, etc. Americans can study Muslim culture and history in hundreds of universities, but Arnerican-studies programs are exceedingly hard to find in the Muslim world.

Teaching and learning real history require hard work. A recent satire, for example, asked key historical figures: "Why did the chicken cross the road?" Some mock responses: Locke: "Because he was exercising his natural right to liberty." Marx: "It was an historical inevitability." Lincoln: "The world will little note, nor long remember, why this chicken crossed the road." FDR: "This administration will establish an agency--The Poultry Crossing Control Commission--to monitor all road crossings by chickens." JFK: "Ask not why the chicken crossed the road; ask what road you can cross to build a better America."

I distributed this spoof to classes of advanced placement history seniors at several of the most prestigious high schools in Massachusetts and the students were puzzled, embarrassed and unresponsive. They were, as the kids might say, clueless as to what was being satirized because they had never learned much
about these "dead, white males."

To paraphrase the 1983 commission on excellence in education, we must understand that, if the enemies of open, democratic societies had used force to impose this historical and civic ignorance upon us and our children, we would consider it an act of war.

This article was first published by and is reprinted with permission.

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John Davenport - 9/26/2002

Although I disagree with many points in Sheldon Stern's piece on history education, let me say that he is right on the mark regarding social studies teachers. As a middle-school teacher with a Ph.D. in history let me say that not a day goes by that I don't curse the woefully unprepared educators who purport to teach our children history. It is a crime that we demand solid credentials from math and science teachers but we allow virtually anyone from the P.E. coach to the janitor the opportunity to pontificate on matters historical. Our nation will continue to suffer from historical amnesia, or worse, as long as we accept the fact that most "history teachers" know as much or less than their young charges.

mark safranski - 9/25/2002

Amen. Ravitch, if anything understated the case. If you think secondary level historical literacy among educators is bad, take a gander at what passes for " social studies " in elementary classrooms sometime.