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The consequences of historical illiteracy — and how we can confront this national problem

Historian David McCullough of Camden signs a copy of one of his books at the Camden Post Office in 2008.
U.S. Postal Service photo
Historian David McCullough of Camden signs a copy of one of his books at the Camden Post Office in 2008.
Posted April 23, 2014, at 11:33 a.m.

Native Americans help devastated English pilgrims grow food on American soil. Africans survive the most horrendous conditions imaginable to arrive on our shores in chains. Captured American soldiers die in the sweltering, rat-infested bellies of British prison ships. A group of visionary patriots risk hanging for treason as they declare their right to self-government. Young men from Maine charge down a Gettysburg hill in some of the nastiest fighting of that epic battle. Ragged children toil in dangerous mines and factories. Women are spit on, kicked, cursed and jailed, merely for wanting to vote.

It is unsettling that too many know too little about these and other important past events. Noted historian David McCullough speaks of a college student who told him she didn’t realize that the original 13 colonies were all in the east. Recent National Assessment of Educational Progress results show just 12 percent of U.S. high school seniors scored proficiently in history. Most, for example, did not know that China was North Korea’s ally in the Korean War or that Brown v. Board of Education is the landmark Supreme Court decision that ended school segregation.

We must confront this serious national problem of historical illiteracy.

It is said that history isn’t “was” but “is.” It explains why we are what we are today. How can we hope to understand our ideals of rugged individualism and collective responsibility without understanding early American settlement, university land-granting, or the suffering of the Great Depression? We can’t understand our economic system and sprawling geography without understanding the Industrial Revolution, Westward Expansion, and Manifest Destiny.

Ignorant of our history, we become a society of incomplete individuals. We must learn the many lessons of the past, and those who have shaped our history stand as role models whose stories compel us to determine how we might shape our own communities, state and nation.

Academic history learning fosters many important skills. Students read, write, and visualize. They think critically as they interpret primary source documents and artifacts. They apply technology as they produce multimedia presentations and more.

What can families do? Tell old family stories. Do genealogy projects using old family photographs, letters and other primary source items. Interview and video elderly relatives as they relate their own histories. Read quality historical fiction, biographies and the histories of personal interests such as art, music, cars or sports. Visit museums and attractions that bring history to life. There are countless possibilities.

Above all, we must all agree that learning our history is essential and that we are all “natural historians” who love to reminisce on our pasts and make greater meaning of our present lives through this reflection. Once people get a taste, they yearn for more.

We need our history, and it needs us. We must respect the past. We owe it to ourselves, to our children, and, most of all, to those who did so much, sacrificed so much and left so much for us.

We just can’t fail them.

Ron Bilanciais a husband, father and history teacher who lives in Brewer.

 

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