American Elephants

Our Colleges And Universities Are Failing History, And It Shows by The Elephant's Child


I dislike  President’s Day, which is a mixture of Lincoln’s Birthday and Washington’s Birthday, supposedly honoring both of our most important presidents, but mostly an occasion for a three-day weekend and special sales. I liked it better when little kids cut out pictures of log cabins and cherry trees and axes, which at least indicated the possibility that schools might actually be talking about President Lincoln and President Washington, albeit with faulty symbols.

The warfare between President Obama’s Democratic Party and the Republican-led House over the budget, the national debt, entitlements and regulation represents an historic chasm over the size and scope of the federal government. Understanding accurately just what is at stake in the struggle requires  knowledge of American History. That is the very subject that today’s liberal education is denying to today’s college students.

The Constitution begins “We the People of the United States , In Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” Note that We the People is in great big letters for a reason.

A recent report from the National Association of Scholars (NAS) “Recasting History: Are Race, Class, and Gender Dominating American History?” clearly demonstrates that our colleges and universities are doing a bad job. History departments promote a distorted vision of America by concentrating on the teaching of race, class, and gender at the expense of nearly everything else. Universities usually avoid transparency and accountability, so it’s hard to determine what is actually being taught in their classrooms.

Texas mandates that undergraduates in the public universities take two courses in American history, and that faculty member’s backgrounds, research interests, course assignments be easily available.At the University of Texas, 78 percent of the courses through which students could satisfy the American history requirement  devoted half or more of their readings to issues of race, class and gender. At Texas A&M 50 percent of the courses did the same. Key documents  of American history were rarely assigned. In 2010 not one qualifying course for the history requirement asked students to read the Mayflower Compact or Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.

I took little history in College, largely because my history professor was a date freak. His concept of history was ordered by dates rather than understanding of how events followed each other. He was big on snap-quizzes on Saturday mornings at 8:00 a.m. in which he would ask us to enumerate what happened between 1872 and 1893, for example. That turned me off of history for several years, until I discovered that not all historians approached history in that way, and learned that history could be fascinating. Many universities do not require any American history.

Last week we learned that according to a study of 2,200 people by the National Science Foundation, one in four Americans do not know the Earth orbits the Sun, and fewer than half know that humans evolved from earlier species. The survey is conducted every two years and is reported to the President and Congress. The president believes that sending more Americans to college is the answer to economic growth. Andrew Cuomo has just announced that he wants to send the people incarcerated in New York prisons to college. Where apparently, studies in race, class and gender will make them employable in the 21st century. At least they couldn’t cut class.

If we are to retain our liberty, we must have some understanding of our own history and some understanding of how the country is supposed to operate. When a president takes it upon himself to revise laws, change laws in direct contradiction to his oath of office under the Constitution, why would those who have never read the whole Constitution nor learned about past struggles to preserve our adherence to the Constitution think it is a big deal?

“The clear lesson of history is that individual liberty, the basic underpinning of American society, requires constant defense against the encroachment of the state.” (Walter Wriston) Will the people who don’t know that the Earth orbits the Sun understand what is important about the preservation of individual liberty and why? Sending more kids to college to study race, class and gender isn’t going to do it.

5 Comments so far
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I was fortunate in that I always had history teachers that were not only excited about history, they were able to get you involved in that excitement as well. It was in those classes in grade school and high school that helped me to understand that history is more than the memory of dates and places and events, it’s the understanding context, of the WHY and HOW… why is this important, how does it impact other events of the day. It is the failure of this understanding that leads to a narrowing world view, and the lack of understanding that events in one place can have an effect in another place.

A number of years ago, for some strange reason, I joined the American Historical Association, and have attended a few of their annual conferences (a lot of the work I do involves historical research, and that’s what most of my degrees are in). Always a topic of discussion is the state of American History education, and it breaks down into two major camps; one, the teaching of American history in the traditional sense, and teaching it the way you describe – the gender, race, class emphasis. And while the latter is interesting (and even important, in its way), it is simply a sub-group of the whole of history. And without proper context, it can lead to an incorrect view of the history of the time (this is the problem I, and many others, have with “historians” like Howard Zinn – his “A People’s History” is a farce in terms of both historical fact and historical analysis).

On college campuses around the country, emphasis has shifted to world history, with U.S. history as a mere footnote (this was the history that was taught at Columbia when Obama was a student there; I would guess this approach contributed greatly to his “citizen of the world” shtick). But in order for one to be proud of their country, they have to KNOW their country.


Comment by Lon Mead

Oh yes, America is just one nation among many, and certainly not exceptional. Our interference causes most of the troubles in the world, and it’s more important to be au courant with the problems of the people of upper Tajikistan. Have you read John Steele Gordon’s An Empire of Wealth? I keep pushing it on everyone I know. It’s more of an economic history, but there’s a real sense of how events flow create and flow into following events. I love that book. Read my way through Kenneth Roberts when I was a kid.

I really got interested in history when I first got a computer and could do a lot of genealogy online. It really comes alive when you see how your family fits in. Six or seven Revolutionary soldiers, and the Hessians killed my GGGGG Grandmother. Zinn has done incalculable damage.


Comment by The Elephant's Child

As a matter of fact I have a copy of “An Empire of Wealth” on the bookshelf next to my desk. I like it as a reference, but as you’ve discovered, I also like it because the way it covers its subject in an engaging and fairly complete manner… I’ve used it as an example of what a good history book should be like. I also read my way through Will and Ariel Durant’s “The Story of Civilization”- all 11 volumes.

I had done a bit of genealogy when I was younger (my 8th grade English teacher was (is!) a Mormon, and she helped). My Dad’s family was mostly farmers of German and Irish extraction (Phelans and Quillans, mostly) that settled in the NW Ohio area, but Dad tells me there was a Hessian in the pile somewhere (sorry!). I didn’t know until later that on my Mom’s side we’re descended from the New England Endicotts and South Carolina Pinckneys, which spurred a lot of interest on my part in colonial history.

I occasionally give talks to classes at our local high school, and one of the things I point out to the students is that history is everywhere, and there are interesting bits to be found anywhere you look. my Mom and Dad’s next door neighbor for several years was Harry Coover, the man who invented superglue, for example, and the first official treaty between the U.S. government and the Cherokees that lived in this area – the Treaty of the Holston, which allowed westward expansion through this part of the country and allowed Daniel Boone to mark out The Wilderness Road was signed on the Long Island of the Holston here in Kingsport. I’ve always thought history should encourage curiosity, something that is, sadly, not taught anymore.


Comment by Lon Mead

British to Boston, starting with the Winthrop Fleet, Dutch from New Amsterdam, Germans from Baumholder went to Germantown PA. Scots-Irish Associated Reformed Presbyterians to South Carolina, and a young Welsh couple to Philadelphia.

A German Grandfather was a captain of a flying-camp of Pennsylvania riflemen. He was hit in the elbow with a cannon ball defending Brooklyn Heights from the British, and disabled. One witnessed the execution of Major Andre, another served in the ranks under Lafayette. A southern Scot volunteered to replace his brother who was killed in the first year of the war, was captured and held on a hulk in Charleston, escaped, and picked up Tarleton’s sword at the battle of Cowpens. A farmer in his 40s volunteered to go “agin’Burgoyne” when he was making his way down to Saratoga, but went back home when he found out that people were actually shooting at him. A Connecticut Captain of Minute Men was killed in the Battle of Bridgeport.

The abolitionist bunch from South Carolina went to Ohio in 1801, and their church was a station on the Underground Railroad. Lost 2 great uncles on each side of the War Between the States. My great grandmother wrote to her grandson about how they buried the silver because of that terrible Sherman, though as far as I can tell even the outriders never came anywhere near their town. My mother’s mother was a Sherman.

Have you ever read Alvin Kernan’s Crossing the Line? He was born in Wyoming, so naturally when he graduated from High School he went to sea, just before Pearl Harbor. He managed to be in the middle of pretty much everything in the Pacific, and tells his story with wry good humor. He became an English professor with a distinguished career right through the 60s which he told in In Plato’s Cave also an excellent read.


Comment by The Elephant's Child

Wait… The Arsonist is in your family tree? (I’m one of those who says “South Carolina” and “Other Carolina”, because we don’t like saying THAT word. ;-))

I think I may know a distant relative of yours if that’s the case!


Comment by Lon Mead

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