Don't Know Much About History

by Patrick O’Hannigan

English has always been close to my heart, but if I were superintendent of public education, I'd leave language instruction alone and change the way American history is taught. Only with a firm grasp of where we've been can we make informed decisions about where we should go.

I talked with a recent high school graduate from a neighboring town, as well as a handful of students currently in elementary or middle schools. Word on the ground is that American history teachers need help. Every kid I talked with has smarts enough to anticipate a brilliant future, but each also has a superficial view of the past, and all have been cheated by California state education guidelines.

My sample included both public- and private-school kids, but I blame the same bureaucrats for problems in both sectors. While private schools don't have to adhere to state guidelines as strictly as government schools do, most of them follow those guidelines anyway in an effort to keep their accreditation process hassle-free, and this defensive behavior blurs the line that might otherwise exist between rival school systems.

California takes a cafeteria-style approach to history, serving it up in carefully calibrated doses rather than as a banquet that kids can feast on for more than a year at a time. As a result, students who aren't home-schooled learn only the broad outline of American history. Faced with the challenge of presenting a bird's-eye view of everything in the national memory book, history teachers shortchange both famous and obscure people. Paul Revere, for example, is known for his midnight ride, but most students think of him as a simple courier rather than a key colonial player who belonged to five of the seven Boston-area groups agitating for independence from England.

With regard to the armed conflict between North and South that raged from 1861 to 1865, I can't fault kids for calling it the Civil War, as they have been taught to do. Nevertheless, because the Confederate states had no desire to rule their northern neighbors or topple the federal government, the bloodshed of that era should really be called the War Between the States, and if I ruled the school system, it would be.

Using a more accurate name for the Civil War would introduce the idea of states' rights into classrooms where it is usually ignored. Truth in labeling would also make it easier to explain why more than 13,000 Southern black men were rifle-toting soldiers in the Confederate armies, not just cooks or musicians hoping to be freed from slavery by Northern military might.

A good grasp of the arguments for and against states' rights would also shed light on the question of whether God belongs in the Pledge of Allegiance. Recent history looks different if you think that the stink bomb hidden in the Pledge of Allegiance is the idea that we are one nation "indivisible" rather than the idea that we are one nation "under God." Sadly, students are seldom asked to ponder why Confederate leaders were never tried for treason.

What history kids in California know is pieced together from survey courses they take in fifth, eighth, and eleventh grades. Ninth grade has no history requirement. One local high school fills that gap by spending the first half of freshman year on "Health and Family Living" and the second half of that year on "Contemporary Issues."

A class in contemporary issues is potentially broad enough to cover hot-button subjects like abortion, immigration, and affirmative action, but what I heard from young friends who took that class were stories about having to memorize state mottos.

In fantasies where I sit in the big leather superintendent's chair with the key to a luxury car in my pants pocket, every history teacher in California spends at least a week talking about the Bill of Rights, and the so-called "wall of separation" between church and state gets an especially hard look.

If someone could explain to me how conventional wisdom about the wall dividing church and state can be reconciled with the fact that president Jefferson spent public money on Bibles for Native Americans, I'd be grateful. As a Washington Times reporter noticed earlier this month, scholars are now beginning to realize that the "wall of separation" we have today owes more to the rabid anti-Catholicism of former Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black than to Mr. Jefferson. Black wrote in 1947 that the First Amendment created a "high and impregnable wall" between religion and government. It was as close to poetry as the former Ku Klux Klansman would ever come. Although Black's best career move was trading the white robes of the Klan for the black robes of the federal bench, ACLU lawyers still admire him.

Meanwhile, history teachers don't usually have time to debunk myths like the one that calls our government a democracy rather than a republic. Worse, local teachers do not seem to impart any sense of how special this country is to their students.

All of us are lucky to live in a country founded on good ideas rather than on ethnic or tribal loyalties. America has many flaws, but its insistence on inalienable rights and equality before the law deserves to be celebrated, and history teachers should be the cheerleaders at that party. As syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker once wrote, "our history may be brief, our architecture little more than tornado bait, our cuisine a tad quick for the sophisticated palate. But American culture in the main is characterized by a spirit of goodness, optimism, and generosity you don't find anywhere else in the world."

Evidence for that view is everywhere you look. If you read as I did about the impoverished Guatemalan parents of twin girls born joined at the head who recently found medical relief for their daughters with the help of a charity in Seattle and a surgical team in Los Angeles, then you have a current example of what Parker meant. Nobody called the United Nations on that one. Nobody had to.