Going Down in History

“Eight pages down, seven more to go,” I tell myself as I stare at a sea of 10-point font. After a four-mile run and a seventh period chemistry test, reading about the Order of the Flagellants is not exactly what I had in mind. However, as I sit at my desk, thinking of a new way to procrastinate, little do I realize how fortunate I am to attend a school where American history is an integral part of the curriculum. Recent polls of college Seniors show that barely half of the students possess general information about American government and the Constitution. Only one-third recognize George Washington as the commander at the battle of Yorktown, the final clash of the Revolutionary War. A whopping 40 percent do not know when the Civil War took place. Fewer than one-fourth of the students can identify the father of our Constitution, James Madison. And 25 percent could not distinguish Karl Marx’s extremist rhetoric from that of our founding fathers. In fact, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) reports that students can now graduate from all of the nation’s top colleges without taking a single course in American history. As ACTA states, “As we move forward into the 21st century, our future leaders are graduating with an alarming ignorance of their heritage – a kind of collective amnesia – and a profound historical illiteracy which bodes ill for the future of the republic.” Without understanding our country’s founding principles and past relationships, we cannot accurately assess our nation’s current policies and actions. Without the perspective of who we have been, we cannot fully comprehend our place in the modern world. Without awareness of the mistakes and triumphs of our past, our decisions for the future become hazy. Insight into history is imperative, for once you grasp the complete picture of antiquity, a sense of judgment for the forthcoming logically ensues. Even when schools do teach American history, the picture offered is often incomplete. In their desperate efforts to fulfill federal mandates demanding improved test scores, many schools are teaching less and thus testing on less material. This method certainly results in higher scores for the schools, but it forces the students to pay a disproportionate price. Earlier this year, the Georgia Department of Education revealed a new curriculum for the existing 11th-grade U.S. history course. The proposed class begins with a two-week look into the founding of our country. Then, it flashes forward a century to 1876, skipping over such crucial events as the Louisiana Purchase and the Trail of Tears. Topics such as the Alamo will remain untouched; figures such as orator Daniel Webster, compromiser Henry Clay, and abolitionist Frederick Douglass will not be mentioned; crucial movements such as the Underground Railroad will be omitted. There are few references to the Civil War: Fort Sumter, Robert E. Lee, and Abraham Lincoln are skimmed. Rather than learn about the events that shaped our heritage, students instead will write essays about the Jazz Age and watch snippets from “All in the Family.” However, as history curricula in public schools nation-wide are “dumbed down,” here at Andover, the situation is just the opposite. At one point in their Andover career, each student is required to take an extensive and rigorous survey course in American history. Even though many hail this course as the bane of their Upper year, Seniors graduate with a broad and reaching view of our nation’s history. Here at Andover, we understand that we must know our past in order to fully comprehend our future. So, the next time you find yourself struggling to finish that 28 page history reading, think of all the unfortunate students who will never have the opportunity to fully know their past. Fight the epidemic of historical ignorance by arming yourself with knowledge. Novelist Milan Kundera put it best when he said, “If you want to destroy a country, destroy its memory.” Historical illiteracy in our schools is not just unfortunate. It is dangerous.