Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The teaching of American History

An amazing op-ed by David Gelernter (hat tip: Instapundit) expresses his amazement about the prevalence of students with a systematic ignorance of American History.

Unfortunately, this deficiency in education is much more systematic than just American History. A personal encounter that I had with historical ignorance began when I was discussing a book on medieval Anglo-French history that I had read with an undergraduate coworker during dinner. I happened to mention the Magna Carta at one point, and after a few moments I noticed that a look of deep puzzlement had managed to break through her usual emotionless, Vulcan-esque poker face. Here I had mentioned one of the most important written documents in Western History that had laid the basis for the development of the Rule of Law and Constitutionalism for centuries to follow, and she literaly did not have the slightest clue that such a thing had even existed until that moment.

It was time for a test. The next day I pigeonholed another undergraduate coworker and asked him to tell me what the Magna Carta is. His reply was something along the lines of "Does that have something to do with Charlemagne?" After thanking heaven for not making me a History Teaching Assistant with a heavily grade-inflationary professor, I asked undergrad number three and this time I got a pretty reasonable, accurate answer. After asking all three undergraduates where they went to high-school so I would know which state school systems to avoid if I ever have children someday, I called my friend Alex who been out of school for a few years and asked him about the Magna Carta.

The response was like something out of an encyclopedia article.

"Alex, that was amazing", I responded. "What high school did you have to attend to learn that?"

"Actually Joe, I didn't learn that in school. I went to the capital to see President Reagan lying in state and got stuck in line next to the actual Magna Carta for an hour!"

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