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The Teaching of History? “It’s History!”

Cicero wrote that “Not to know what happened before one was born is to remain a child.”
But, hey, who was Cicero, anyway? Don’t ask too many college students these days, they probably won’t know.

Why would they? Instruction in history is dying out. In the vernacular, “It’s history.” No wonder a Hearst Corporation study showed that 45% of those surveyed could not distinguish between the ideas of Karl Marx and those of the US Constitution. No wonder that the recent proposal for a government apology for slavery is debated in a population where–a Gallup Organization survey disclosed–only 40% of college seniors know when the Civil War occured.

A news story from Virginia tells that James Madison University, named after the co-author of The Federalist Papers and fourth president of the United States, no longer will require a course in American history. “Unless things change,” comments Dr. Jerry Martin, president of the National Alumni Forum, “students will be able to graduate from James Madison University without knowing who James Madison was.”

Their condition will not be unusual. According to a 1996 report by the National Association of Scholars, history instruction has been declining for over two generations. A 1988 report by the National Endowment for the Humanities showed that it was possible to graduate from 78% of the nation’s colleges and universities without ever taking a course in the history of western civilization and from 38% without taking a history course of any kind.

Even in schools where history is mandatory, the requirement may be satisfied from a cafeteria selection of courses. These may include such offerings as “The History of Deviance” or “Power, Class and Inequality,” where the real subject is a political agenda. Taxpayers, alumni, parents and students foot the bill.

A 1995 report by the New York Association of Scholars noted that while eight of 16 public universities in that state no longer required any course in western civilization, all 16 required a course in multiculturalism.

Learning about the histories and cultures of China, or India or Africa, definitely is worthwhile, and a requirement for such study might make sense if added to a requirement for “western civ.” But, alas, “multicultural” courses seldom have much to do with studying foreign cultures. Rather, their typical subject is domestic social criticism of white male heterosexual oppression. Sometimes the message is inflicted with such a heavy hand that it alienates the very students it is supposed to sensitize. Most often the courses are merely a hash of faddish views. And, assuming you agree with the teacher, they often provide an easy place to cadge an “A”.

Meanwhile, attention and financial resources are deflected from more standard–and more rigorous–core history instruction. As to the cafeteria courses, New York’s State Regents have declared: “Too frequently, today’s curricula permit students to build schedules that completely avoid academic areas they find uncongenial. Such catering to individual preferences may result in graduates being illiterate in fields essential for constructive participation in modern life.”

Almost all universities still pay lip service to the old standards of a core liberal education, of course, but the realitiy frequently is different. Administrations write the publicity brochures, but faculties devise the courses. As an example of influences upon faculties, in turn, Jerry Martin of The National Alumni Forum cites the American Association of Colleges and Universities, an organization that tends to encourage opposition to traditional history. Thus, a recent top AACU prize went to Dr. Betty Jean Craige for “Reconnection,” a book arguing for a “new relativism” and against objective standards and rationalism.

For such post-modern pedagogy, says Martin, all history is political. A dominant scholarly view is seen as reflecting little more than the power exerted by people in authority. “Paradoxically,” Martin notes, “academic freedom collapses” in such an understanding, because there no longer is much reason to tolerate views with which one disagrees.

Academic emphasis increasingly is placed as well on the process of studying history, rather than on content. It’s a nice intellectual conceit, but for many students “learning to learn” displaces actual learning. The problem is found in other fields, too. For instance, one finds students of English literature whose heads are filled with “critical theory,” but have small appreciation of the great canon of British and American literary works. It is a personal loss for them.

But failed history instruction perhaps has more effect on society generally. The media need readers and viewers with some historical understanding, or all complicated news reports will be “dummed down” or simply eliminated. The country needs citizens and officials with historical judgment to inform their political choices.

Colleges and universities obviously have the most at stake. At least, it is their reputations that are in the most danger. And here is perhaps a surprise. You can blame the faculty and sometimes the school president for the deterioration of standards. But if you had to pick one source of authority that most needs to be alerted to the challenges to academic excellence, you might identify the trustees and regents of colleges and universities. They usually recognize that they bear ultimate responsibility for the financial integrity of their institutions. What they sometimes forget is that they also bear legal responsibility for the quality of education provided within them.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.