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Thursday, April 22, 2004

Back when I was a lad...

We all have the romanticized view of our childhood - how good we were on the baseball diamond, how smart we were about trivia. The reality is that when we are young, we are ignorant of a lot of facts and figures. School has a valuable role to play if it is able to convey facts and figures and the general methods of critical thinking. Alas, all too often public schools do not worry about facts and figures and the development of critical thinking skills was long ago abandoned.

However, it is a common claim (especially amongst us profs) that the students "don't know anything" about history. How can we convey the importance of the Great Depression in its relationship to public policy if the students don't know (or won't reveal they know) when the GD occurred? We have all heard the complaints from our colleagues and nodded in agreement.

It seems that the youngsters have refused to learn history for quite a while, and if anything things might be better today than they were 100 years ago (when there was so much less history to remember!!). This article discusses the lack of knowledge of historical (in our view) events over the years.
A test administered in 1915 and 1916 to hundreds of high school and college students who were about to face World War I found that they did not know what happened in 1776 and confused Thomas Jefferson with Jefferson Davis. A 1943 test showed that only a quarter of college students could name two contributions made by either Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln, leading historian Allan Nevins to fret that such a historically illiterate bunch might be a liability on the battlefields of Europe in World War II.

And still, Americans won both wars, and many of the 1943 students who said the United States purchased Alaska from the Dutch and Hawaii from Norway were later lionized in books, movies and television as "the Greatest Generation."

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