Why kids don't know history
After a post I did a couple of weeks ago, Liz Ditz shared this piece from Evan Thomas with me. Thomas complains that kids--even college kids--know absolutely nothing about history these days. He also says that he sees no "joy" from kids learning about history, and he says he is looking for reasons why. Liz asked me to comment on this, and I will, but I'd love to hear other people's opinions on this.
First of all, I have to admit that I get a little touchy about members of the elite criticizing us peons who are involved in K-12 education. Although Evans, who is the assistant managing editor at Newsweek and the author of a number of history books, doesn't explicitly slam high school history teachers, I thought criticism was clearly implied. Nevertheless, I do think Thomas hit on one point that has made things more difficult, and that is the change in history content that is taught. When I went to school, there seemed to be an agreement about the people and events that kids should know about, but there isn't any more. Traditionalists think we should teach about the "dead white males," but others believe we need to focus on multiculturalism. Some, like those in charge in our state, believe we should compromise by teaching everything, which means we can't go into enough depth on anything to make it interesting.
I believe, however, that the biggest problems are cultural. We are in a "me" and "now" dominated society, and the past just doesn't seem very important--especially to teenagers. Even more than that, however, is something in our culture that hockey coaches like me have been complaining about for several years now.
That's right--you did not misread the last paragraph, and it doesn't contain a misprint. History teachers and Northern Minnesota hockey coaches face a similar problem. In the past, many kids in our part of the country would spend hour after hour at outdoor rinks--often eight to ten hours a day--playing shinny hockey. As a result, by the time they got to high school, some of them had developed incredible skills. But today kids don't do that any more because there are so many other things for them to do. There are hundreds of TV channels, I-pods, cell phones, PlayStation, video games, DVDs, the Internet, MySpace, and YouTube. In fact, there are so many new high tech gadgets out there for kids, and I do such a poor job keeping up with them, that half of what I just wrote might well be obsolete by now.
I think the same problem this causes for high school hockey coaches applies to something like history. I was never an A-student in high school, but I actually did read books about history once in a while when I was growing up. I remember reading books about George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, George Armstrong Custer, Valley Forge, Bull Run, World War II, and I even read John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage. I wonder how many of my A-students have read as many history books as I did. Probably not very many. Would I have read those books if I'd have had all the gadgets and distractions that they have today? Probably not.