A column from Nick Paumgarten in The New Yorker on America's lack of historical knowledge drops some essential wisdom:
The federal government has spent nearly a billion dollars in the past ten years to teach history to history teachers, but the money is no match for countervailing initiatives and trends—No Child Left Behind, and its emphasis on reading and math; the rise of social studies; the tyranny of the unobjectionable textbook; widespread faintheartedness in the face of cultural and political discord; and stronger pot.
And yet it may be that, while kids aren’t getting better, they’re not getting worse. The history of history-education evaluation is littered with voguish pedagogy, statistical funny business, ideological arm wrestling, a disproportionate emphasis on trivia, and a protocol that insures that each generation of kids looks dim to its elders. “We haven’t ever known our past,” Sam Wineburg, a professor of education and history at Stanford, said last week. “Your kids are no stupider than their grandparents.” He pointed out that the first large-scale proficiency study—of Texas students, in 1915-16—demonstrated that many couldn’t tell Thomas Jefferson from Jefferson Davis or 1492 from 1776. A 1943 survey of seven thousand college freshmen found that, among other things, only six per cent of them could name the original thirteen colonies. “Appallingly ignorant,” the Times harrumphed, as it would again in the face of another dismal showing, in 1976. (And it’s not just Americans: an infamous 2004 survey revealed that a small percentage of Britons aged sixteen to twenty-four believed that the Spanish Armada was vanquished by Gandalf.)
Admittedly, Gandalf vs. Armada is pretty awesome. It's particularly ironic that the perpetual scare over the next generation's lack of historical knowledge is itself ignorant of history. For at least a decade I've seen an e-mail purporting to show the decline in educational standards compared to an 1895 eighth-grade test (Snopes has a debunking). Of course, the reason the history part of the test is partly indecipherable is because it relies on ways of grouping epochs that were the voguish pedagogy of the 1890s. That even the historically educated don't remember those is no particular loss.
I lucked up on history. I had a natural talent and interest furthered by some incredible teachers. In retrospect, I think I got just about the best historical education available in public schools. I ended up with the highest possible score on my AP US History exam, and a year's worth of college history credit (my struggles with math are a contrasting story).
Paumgarten's column is dead-on on a number of fronts. History remains contentious (if you doubt this, go look at the YouTube comments for any video relating to the Civil War or Ireland). Parents want some control over their school systems and, in America, they have it through school boards.
So the really juicy, interesting parts all too often get left out in favor of bare-bones facts with little context. If my teachers hadn't had tenure, I don't like to think about what would have happened to them after some of their lessons. I wrote my final AP exam, for example, on labor struggles in the late 19th/early 20th centuries, including the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Can you imagine the outcry in some quarters against any teacher that honestly addressed that topic?
With its competing interpretations and ambiguities, history makes for a tougher sell than the clearer nuts-and-bolts answers of hard science education. Its benefits, while quite real, don't measure easily in terms of the economic development that obsesses many reformers.
Beyond that, is the fact that better historical education is essential to deal with the rapidly changing world we inhabit. But that's not commonly a hallmark of most educational systems, and the way tests are geared ensures a steady supply of statistical talking points to bolster the Woe-is-Us industry, just as it did in the last century. Improving that doesn't involve going back to some bygone era, but an actual evolution forward, in the teeth of those who would rip out of education everything that doesn't fit on a damn balance sheet.