I have to confess that I have an enormously strong bias in favor of teaching our students as much history as possible. That’s because, as someone once said, the past is never really over – in fact, it isn’t really even past.
Everything is connected to things and ideas and people who came before. The more you understand that, the more you will understand our society and culture; who we are and how we came to be. And with due apologies to Bill Gates and my personal unknown hero, the inventor of air conditioning, that is more important than technical knowledge.
Right now we are in the process of trying to improve our standards for what kids learn in high school, and there is a debate over what they should learn about history. Unfortunately, the discussion has now been distorted for ideological reasons.
We don’t need that. We do need to learn history. Henry Ford, of all people, said that there really isn’t anything new except the history you don’t know. There’s a lot of truth in that. Without getting into the debate about the war, don’t you wish that those responsible for our troops in Iraq knew everything there was to know about our experience in Vietnam?
History is sometimes taught badly, which is a shame. There is no more fascinating subject, and if you don’t know where we have been, you won’t have much of a clue where we are, and probably very little understanding of where we need to be.
One thing does bother me about the new standards; in high school, they will start teaching American history in 1890, under the assumption that they learned the earlier stuff in earlier grades. Well, guess what. They didn’t.
I teach college students at Wayne State University, most of who don’t know when the Civil War was. I interviewed a state legislator on this program who thought the U.S. Constitution was written in the Capitol Building in Washington, and another whose views were shaped by distorted ideas about the Founding Fathers and religion.
They needed to know more history. Even with good teachers, I am not convinced that children can really grasp the enormity of slavery or the complexities of Reconstruction before high school. My thoughts on this are heavily influenced by my wife, who actually knows something about it. She teaches advanced placement American history in a Michigan high school, and her students regularly outperform others on the statewide exam.
History is important, and when taught right, more compelling than any video game. We’ve been part of a lot of it here in Michigan, from the earliest hunters and trappers to the French with their funny ribbon farms around Detroit, to our days as the arsenal of democracy.
Yes, it’s been a long strange trip, some of it triumphant and some of it sad, but if you don’t know the plot, you are going to have a very hard time writing a dynamic sequel. And if there is anything Michigan needs these days, it is a really triumphant next act.