I got home from work a bit early today, so I was watching Jeopardy. There was a category on the American Revolution. One woman nailed the first three questions, all the while looking somewhat peeved that neither of the other contestants knew the answer. Time ran out on the round before she could sweep the category.
Watching this reminded me of a conversation I had in Wisconsin over the holidays. I was in a bar with my dad, a friend of his and a bartender eating dinner and watching the news. President Ford had just died days earlier. The reporter mentioned that only four current and former presidents were still alive. I was the only one who could name all four (Bush II, Clinton, Bush I and Carter). I was also the only one in the conversation who wasn't alive when Jimmy Carter was president.
Aside from the basics, I don't really know much about Jimmy Carter. I'd bet most people from my generation don't. The way we teach history creates a real perception problem. I took American history classes in grade school, high school and college. My grade school class ended at the Civil War. My high school class (a full year) ended at World War 2. My college class also ended at the Civil War. An entire generation of Americans and several generations before them have grown up learning that American history ended in 1945. Students in the graduating classes of 2007 will be 62 years behind. Is it any wonder, then, that the high-school educated bartender in the second story thinks Al Gore is still Vice President?
I think it's important that students entering the real world have an appropriate understanding for the events and sacrifices that made and kept America free. But I think it's even more important that we give them an understanding of what got them where they are now: the politics, policies and programs that have succeeded and failed and created the situations their generation will be expected to deal with. It seems unlikely that a student who doesn't have a natural interest in politics when they graduate from high school or college will ever pick it up on their own: the world they've been taught about is decades out of context and the learning curve to fully understand the system around them is greater than a casual observer will take the time to overcome.
Simply put, if we want the next generation to be able to lead society forward, we need to teach them how society got where it is today.