EDITORIALS

Don’t forget history

Posted June 19, 2011, at 8:43 p.m.
Students at Warsaw Middle School in Pittsfield present exhibits in Feb. 2000 on U.S. history, with an emphasis on the presidents in recognition of Presidents Day. Emmy Wagner and Allen Thompson (from left) as President William McKinley and his wife, Ida, discuss the 1901 assassination of McKinley.
Students at Warsaw Middle School in Pittsfield present exhibits in Feb. 2000 on U.S. history, with an emphasis on the presidents in recognition of Presidents Day. Emmy Wagner and Allen Thompson (from left) as President William McKinley and his wife, Ida, discuss the 1901 assassination of McKinley.

A new Maine law aimed at boosting the teaching of science, technology, engineering and mathematics — a curriculum cluster referred to by the acronym STEM — may help the state’s economy grow. Increasingly, businesses need employees who are well-versed in those disciplines. And the businesses that rely on expertise in those areas tend to bring with them high-paying jobs.

At the same time, education officials here in Maine and around the country must not forget the importance of history, and especially American history, in K-12 curricula. The 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation’s Report Card, found that just 13 percent of high school seniors “showed a solid grasp of the subject,” according to a recent AP story.

Just 22 percent of fourth-graders and 18 percent of eighth-graders demonstrated proficiency in history on the test.

Studying the foundations of our nation and the democratic principles that drove the Founders may make people more appreciative of and loyal to the nation, as will studying the sacrifices of previous generations. Beyond this, understanding our history is important as the basis of citizenship and a functional democracy. In this sense, the impetus to build patriots by teaching America’s greatest hits is acceptable. But it can’t stop there. We also must present our children with America’s mistakes. The Trail of Tears. Slavery. Jim Crow. The Japanese internment camps. The Tuskegee syphilis experiments. Codified bigotry against gays.

Teaching these American failures should lead to a more mature, informed citizenship. A lack of historical knowledge also lowers the quality of debate on the key issues of our time. If we fail to understand their antecedents, we ignore valuable evidence about how these fights have been settled in the past.

The debate over the role of public sector unions, for example, did not begin in Wisconsin last year. In fact, almost 100 years ago, a bloody fight that included looting and rioting followed an effort by police to unionize in Boston. Officers worked weeks at a time without a day off, were on call at all hours, and had to sleep in rat- and lice-infested barracks when they were on duty. Public sector unions look quite different, understood in this context.

Other examples from history which help explain the debates of our times abound: the elderly poverty that led to the creation of social programs such as Social Security, the need for federal government deficit-spending during the Great Depression, the trust-busting efforts of President Teddy Roosevelt, the environmental and health horrors that led to the clean air and water laws.

Not only are those ignorant of history doomed to repeat it, their lack of knowledge makes for shallow debates that often reach the wrong conclusions.

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