Thursday, January 11, 2007

FEATURE: Is it time to re-think the way we teach history?

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.



The Real Sporer said...

We need to focus far more on the who/what/when/where/how of history before we go too far down the road of why in K12.

For example, how do you think the 12 year old mind could begin to comprehend the compromise that tolerated the very great evil of slavery for the far greater good that was and is the United States? We have to escape this obsession in school with focusing on American faults and weaknesses (few but real) instead of the amazing things that have created the most free, prosperous and secure society in the history of mankind instead of some of the warts along the way, particularly the ones that cannot be undone.

Learning the actual facts, and in correct historical context, are essential to understanding history with very little moralizing and theorizing.

The Real Sporer said...

Two other issues:

1. My previous comment applies to K12 only. Higher level education can sure fill in the blanks on why things worked that are not capable of adequate definition by the mere occurrences and developments themselves.

2. Here's what you need to know about Jimmy Carter. He was the worst President of the 20th Century. As you know I give Bill Clinton his props as having done some good things, and you probably figured out that I think FDR and Harry Truman were great Presidents (I am an enthusiatic historian so I mean great like no. 3 (FDR) and 6-9 for Truman.

Carter's incompetence devastated the economy, by following Hoover and Cleveland in raising taxes and imposing additional burdens on an already recessing economy, instead of Kennedy and FDR and dramatically lowering taxes to create boom from recession-like Reagan and W in our time.

Complete collapse of American power. If you want to see what the world would look like when liberals run foreign policy, take a look at the world circa 1979-80. Not only was the advance of freedom dramatically delayed for millions, Jimmy's misguided weakness lead to the rise of most of the current Islamofacsism, while simultaneously retreating from the Soviet bid for hegemony.

He is also the most repudiated President in American history. Reagan cartooned on Carter, winning 45 states and damn near all 50 against an incumbant. My father, a Democrat county chairman voted against Carter.

Even Clinton never mentioned Jimmy Carter. There's a reason that Carter is not a venerated Democrat even within his own party.Then, as now, Carter was a genuinely petty and bitter self loathing American.

Anonymous said...

To my great embarrassment, I voted for Carter as my first presidential vote. We were a historic democrat immigrant farming family.

Then, Carter did what Carter did. Me and my family were among those that voted for Reagan in the 45, then 49 state landslides and stayed Republicans from then on.

Did you see the news today that dozens of his staff quit over Carters LIES in his new book.

Culture of Corruption democrats strike again on rewriting history. Who'd have thunk it that even President Carter would stoop so low as to personally lie about his own administration, causing the resignations of DOZENS of long term staffers who object to his rewriting of history.

noneed4thneed said...

Good post Kyle. I too am too young to remember the Carter administration. I have heard people say that Carter did more as a former president than as president.

Carter did put solar panels on the White House. I wonder how things would be different today those panels had stayed there.

Anonymous said...

Well, someone has to.

First off, I think historical judgments like "the worst president of the 20th century" are best left to historians. Now, I have a couple of degrees in history, but that's not what I'm talking about. In a nutshell, if you lived during the presidency or voted for/against a particular president, you don't make historical pronouncements -- you make a political judgment. Now, if we wanted to have a debate about Taft or Hoover, I'm all for it.

So, since we're having a political, rather an a historical conversation, I'll jump in. As I said, someone has to do it, so I'll throw out some positive things about Jimmy Carter. BTW, a historical judgment of Carter will probably start with the appearance of the evangelical vote as a significant force in American national politics -- something that gets overlooked, always, in political debate. Nifty, huh?

Anyway, Carter had some significant accomplishments. Domestically, we got the Department of Education, Department of Energy, and the first significant civil service reorganization in a long time. Internationally, we got the Camp David accords (which, to this day, have stabilized the Egyptian/Israeli border), the Panama Canal treaty (a good thing), and the SALT II treaty (important, but abandoned and obviated by circumstances). He put pressure on many totalitarian regimes (remember Rhodesia?) Lots of positive environmental legislation, a big fight with Congress over "pork" (sound familiar?) and assorted other accomplishments. When the USSR invaded Afghanistan, the "Olympic boycott" for which Carter was widely derided, was the start of a hard-line anti-Soviet move (including arming anti-Soviet guerrillas in Afghanistan - future nod to the Taliban) that, continued, strengthened & refined by Reagan, bore fruit a few later in the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Carter dealt ("badly") with the first energy crisis. OPEC cut supplies, furthering the already simmering problem of inflation (Gerald Ford: Whip Inflation Now). But the biggest problem came when the government of America's long-time ally, Iran, collapsed and Americans were taken hostage at the Embassy and elsewhere in Iran. Carter's ineffectual response was widely derided and probably was the key element in his 1980 defeat.

No, I don't think Jimmy Carter was the best president ever, nor do I think he was the worst. But, by own rules, that's a political judgment, not historical.

Chris said...

When I entered high school in the early 80's, the Vietnam War was less than ten years behind us (I was five or six when the war ended), but I never once heard Vietnam or Korea mentioned in a classroom until I was in college. I still get my 1946-1968 presidents mixed up once in a while... Never really studied 'em much in a classroom setting.

In spite of having a degree in history, I find myself woefully ignorant (that's pronounced "ignert" around here) in many aspects of American history, and I didn't know it until my foreign-born wife started asking me questions I couldn't answer.

Regarding Carter, I tend to lean more towards MWD's view than Sporer or Anonymous. And he has undoubtedly done more as an ex-president than anyone else, though I think after this last book he may want to think about slowing down a little...

The Real Sporer said...

Getting credit for doing more as an exPresident than as a President is a pretty sad commentary. Only Herbert Hoover previously bore that title, and he designed the modern American government, including the DoD.

It is a historical, not political judgment. Carter's economic and foreign policies were disasterous. Far worse than any other Democrat of the 20th Century.

All the harm Carter's at times buffoonish mistakes caused hardly outweighed the disasters like the grain embargo, failure to support the Shah or the parlimentarian liberals in Iran, the tax hikes during a recession, the multiple mistakes that lead to the second oil embargo, the collapse of American policy in Africa (we've never regained our intellegence sources and influences), the general gutting of American intellegence, the loss of credibility associated with the Iran hostage crises, etc...

These are historical events, not political judgments.

Chris-you abundantly prove my point. You are a history major that cannot provide a detailed discussion of your own nation's history during a period no more distant than your parents' lifetime! This isn't an attack on you but rather a sad commentary on our educational system.

My guess is that your high school and college classes focuses very little on the who/what/when/where/how of history but a lot on why. And.......since I have a philosophy/history major from the U of Iowa I would further guess that the "why" was a generalized failure of white, conservative Europeans and Americans of the same ethnic extract and the capitalist societies that they created.

Moreover, I would further guess that the general critique was from a sometimes subtle, sometimes overt Marxist view of history and Marxist/Rawlsian notions of distributive justice.

For example, I'll bet you never heard a word in American history in college that, as bad as he was-and I concede he was a rat bastard-McCarthy was largely correct about the extensive presence of Soviet spys at the highest levels of American government or that the Rosenberg's were spies who gave the H-bomb to the Sovs. In world history I'll further bet you didn't spend much time discussing how utterly the socialist economies were utter failing.

You should sue your school board and college for malpractice.

The Real Sporer said...

Can you tell this is my no. 1 favorite topic-raving I was.

I used to coach at Valley HS and I was appalled at the lack of information the kids learned in history.

How could one seriously evaluate the world in which we live without some meaningful understanding of the world from which we have come.

If more people did have such knowledge, I can assure you the campaign in Iraq and its larger part of the WOT, however managed, would remain popular as hell in this country.

Cathy said...

Jimmy carter was forward thinking in human rights and the need for alternative energy. As someone who lived through his presidency, I would say that he was the first victim of the conservative propaganda machine. My taxes were fine under him. Under Ronald Reagan, my payroll taxes went up $100 a month which was quite a lot in the early 1980s. The rich oil sheiks and the rich in the US didn't like Carter's populist ways. They manipulated the oil prices to influence politics (as we saw happen briefly before the last election.) I interviewed with an oil company (Texaco) under Carter's presidency and the company was eager to move towards biofuels. But once Ronnie came in, it was greed and profit from oil and has been ever since.

Catherine said...

A bit more about Carter--the inflation occurred under his presidency was due to the debt we incurred during the Vietnam War. Much of this was due to Nixon.

He patiently and successfully negotiated the hostage release but it didn't occur until he left office.

The Des Moines Register was a harsh critic of Carter and very unfair towards him in my opinion.

As a student working in exchange for tuition I paid no federal taxes under him at all.

Chris said...


Bingo. I had one instructor in college (one!) who expected us to learn dates, names and places. Every other class I had was of the "You can look the specifics up in the book, but here's why the French Revolution was important..." variety. If we could place an historical event in the correct century it was good enough.

I did learn quite a bit in college, but I don't consider myself knowledgeable in history.

That said, I still like Carter. Had his environmental programs been widely implemented society would be much better off today, in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

Carter gave us Afghanistan, he kept us out of the olympics, the pussiest move of all.

He gave the panama canal away. He did NOT successfully negotiate the hostage crisis. It happened on Reagans watch because they knew reagan was going to militarily go after them. They knew carter would do the basic...if I give you more of my sandwich will you leave me alone?

Remember turning your thermostats down and the "fireside" chats where he tried to convince us that sitting around with blankets on us was really a good and patriotic thing.

Reagan had a democrat controlled legistature. If your payroll taxes went up, blame the democrat congress that passed it.

carter giving us even MORE bureaucracy isn't an accomplishment. It's a stain.