Why American History is Boring
African American, Native American, and Latino students view history with a special dislike. They also learn history especially poorly. Students of color do only slightly worse than white students in mathematics. If you'll pardon my grammar, nonwhite students do more worse in English and most worse in history.6 Something intriguing is going on here: surely history is not more difficult for minorities than trigonometry or Faulkner. Students don't even know they are alienated, only that they "don't like social studies" or "aren't any good at history." In college, most students of color give history departments a wide berth.
Many history teachers perceive the low morale in their classrooms. If they have a lot of time, light domestic responsibilities, sufficient resources, and a flexible principal, some teachers respond by abandoning the overstuffed textbooks and reinventing their American history courses. All too many teachers grow disheartened and settle for less. At least dimly aware that their students are not requiting their own love of history, these teachers withdraw some of their energy from their courses. Gradually they end up going through the motions, staying ahead of their students in the textbooks, covering only material that will appear on the next test.
College teachers in most disciplines are happy when their students have had significant exposure to the subject before college. Not teachers in history. History professors in college routinely put down high school history courses. A colleague of mine calls his survey of American history "Iconoclasm I and II," because he sees his job as disabusing his charges of what they learned in high school. In no other field does this happen. Mathematics professors, for instance, know that non-Euclidean geometry is rarely taught in high school, but they don't assume that Euclidean geometry was mistaught. Professors of English literature don't presume that Romeo and Juliet was misunderstood in high school. Indeed, history is the only field in which the more courses students take, the stupider they become.
Perhaps I do not need to convince you that American history is important. More than any other topic, it is about us. Whether one deems our present society wondrous or awful or both, history reveals how we arrived at this point. Understanding our past is central to our ability to understand ourselves and the world around us. We need to know our history, and according to C. Wright Mills, we know we do.7
Outside of school, Americans show great interest in history. Historical novels, whether by Gore Vidal (Lincoln, Burr, et al.) or Dana Fuller Ross (Idaho!, Utah!, Nebraska!, Oregon!, Missouri!, and on! and on!) often become bestsellers. The National Museum of American History is one of the three big draws of the Smithsonian Institution. The series "The Civil War" attracted new audiences to public television. Movies based on historical incidents or themes are a continuing source of fascination, from Birth of a Nation through Gone with the Wind to Dances with Wolves and JFK.
Our situation is this: American history is full of fantastic and important stories. These stories have the power to spellbind audiences, even audiences of difficult seventh-graders. These same stories show what America has been about and are directly relevant to our present society. American audiences, even young ones, need and want to know about their national past. Yet they sleep through the classes that present it.
What has gone wrong?
We begin to get a handle on this question by noting that the teaching of history, more than any other discipline, is dominated by textbooks.8 And students are right: the books are boring.9 The stories that history textbooks tell are predictable; every problem has already been solved or is about to be solved. Textbooks exclude conflict or real suspense. They leave out anything that might reflect badly upon our national character. When they try for drama, they achieve only melodrama, because readers know that everything will turn out fine in the end. "Despite setbacks, the United States overcame these challenges," in the words of one textbook. Most authors of history textbooks don't even try for melodrama. Instead, they write in a tone that if heard aloud might be described as "mumbling lecturer." No wonder students lose interest.
Textbooks almost never use the present to illuminate the past. They might ask students to consider gender roles in contemporary society as a means of prompting students to think about what women did and did not achieve in the suffrage movement or in the more recent women's movement. They might ask students to prepare household budgets for the families of a janitor and a stockbroker as a means of prompting thinking about labor unions and social classes in the past and present. They might, but they don't. The present is not a source of information for writers of history textbooks.
Conversely, textbooks seldom use the past to illuminate the present. They portray the past as a simple-minded morality play. "Be a good citizen" is the message that textbooks extract from the past. "You have a proud heritage. Be all that you can be. After all, look at what the United States has accomplished." While there is nothing wrong with optimism, it can become something of a burden for students of color, children of working-class parents, girls who notice the dearth of female historical figures, or members of any group that has not achieved socioeconomic success. The optimistic approach prevents any understanding of failure other than blaming the victim. No wonder children of color are alienated. Even for male children from affluent white Families, bland optimism gets pretty boring after eight hundred pages.
Textbooks in American history stand in sharp contrast to other teaching materials. Why are history textbooks so bad? Nationalism is one of the culprits. Textbooks are often muddled by the conflicting desires to promote inquiry and to indoctrinate blind patriotism. "Take a look in your history book, and you'll see why we should be proud," goes an anthem often sung by high school glee clubs. But we need not even look inside.10 The titles themselves tell the story: The Great Republic, The American Way, Land of Promise, Rise of the American Nation.11,15 Such titles differ from the titles of all other textbooks students read in high school or college. Chemistry books, for example, are called Chemistry or Principles of Chemistry, not Rise of the Molecule. And you can tell history textbooks just from their covers, graced as they are with American flags, bald eagles, the Statue of Liberty.
Between the glossy covers, American history textbooks are full of information—overly full. These books are huge. The specimens in my collection of a dozen of the most popular textbooks average four and a half pounds in weight and 888 pages in length. No publisher wants to lose an adoption because a book has left out a detail of concern to a particular geographical area or a particular group. Textbook authors seem compelled to include a paragraph about every U.S. president, even Chester A. Arthur and Millard Fillmore. Then there are the review pages at the end of each chapter. Land of Promise, to take one example, enumerates 444 chapter-closing "Main Ideas." In addition, the book lists literally thousands of "Skill Activities," "Key Terms," "Matching" items, "Fill in the Blanks," "Thinking Critically" questions, and "Review Identifications," as well as still more "Main Ideas" at the ends of the various sections within each chapter. At year's end, no student can remember 444 main ideas, not to mention 624 key terms and countless other "factoids." So students and teachers fall back on one main idea: to memorize the terms for the test following each chapter, then forget them to clear the synapses for the next chapter. No wonder so many high school graduates cannot remember in which century the Civil War was fought!12
None of the facts is remembered, because they are presented simply as one damn thing after another. While textbook authors tend to include most of the trees and all too many twigs, they neglect to give readers even a glimpse of what they might find memorable: the forests. Textbooks stifle meaning by suppressing causation. Students exit history textbooks without having developed the ability to think coherently about social life.
Even though the books bulge with detail, even though the courses are so busy they rarely reach 1960, our teachers and our textbooks still leave out most of what we need to know about the American past. Some of the factoids they present are flatly wrong or unverifiable. In sum, startling errors of omission and distortion mar American histories.
Errors in history textbooks often go uncorrected, partly because the history profession does not bother to review textbooks: Occasionally outsiders do: Frances FitzGerald's 1979 study, America Revised, was a bestseller, but it made no impact on the industry. In pointing out how textbooks ignored or distorted the Spanish impact on Latin America and the colonial United States, FitzGerald predicted, "Text publishers may now be on the verge of rewriting history." But she was wrong—the books have not changed.13
History can be imagined as a pyramid. At its base are the millions of primary sources—the plantation records, city directories, speeches, songs, photographs, newspaper articles, diaries, and letters that document times past. Based on these primary materials, historians write secondary works—books and articles on subjects ranging from deafness on Martha's Vineyard to Grant's tactics at Vicksburg. Historians produce hundreds of these works every year, many of them splendid. In theory, a few historians, working individually or in teams, then synthesize the secondary literature into tertiary works—textbooks covering all phases of U.S. history.
In practice, however, it doesn't happen that way. Instead, history textbooks are clones of each other. The first thing editors do when recruiting new authors is to send them a half-dozen examples of the competition. Often a textbook is written not by the authors whose names grace its cover, but by minions deep in the bowels of the publisher's offices. When historians do write textbooks, they risk snickers from their colleagues—tinged with envy, but snickers nonetheless: "Why are you devoting time to pedagogy rather than original research?"
The result is not happy for textbook scholarship. Many history textbooks list up-to-the-minute secondary sources in their bibliographies, yet the narratives remain totally traditional—unaffected by recent research.14
What would we think of a course in poetry in which students never read a poem? The editors' voice in an English literature textbook might be as dull as the voice in a history textbook, but at least in the English textbook the voice stills when the book presents original works of literature. The omniscient narrator's voice of history textbooks insulates students from the raw materials of history. Rarely do authors quote speeches, songs, diaries, or letters. Students need not be protected from this material. They can just as well read one paragraph from William Jennings Bryan's "Cross of Gold" speech as read American Adventures's two paragraphs about it.
Textbooks also keep students in the dark about the nature of history. History is furious debate informed by evidence and reason. Textbooks encourage students to believe that history is facts to be learned. "We have not avoided controversial issues," announces one set of textbook authors; "instead, we have tried to offer reasoned judgments" on them — thus removing the controversy! Because textbooks employ such a godlike tone, it never occurs to most students to question them. "In retrospect I ask myself, why didn't I think to ask, for example, who were the original inhabitants of the Americas, what was their life like, and how did it change when Columbus arrived," wrote a student of mine in 1991. "However, back then everything was presented as if it were the full picture," she continued, "so I never thought to doubt that it was."
As a result of all this, most high school seniors are hamstrung in their
efforts to analyze controversial issues in our society. (I know because I
encounter these students the next year as college freshmen.) We've got
to do better. Five-sixths of all Americans never take a course in American
history beyond high school. What our citizens "learn" in high school
forms much of what they know about our past.
(Quoted from the book
Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong
by James W. Loewen
See the Homepage of James W. Loewen
(Preface from the book
Not So! Popular Myths About America from Columbus to Clinton.
by Paul F. Boller, Jr.
In history there are no absolutes. When it comes to controversial issues,
the historian deals with probabilities, not finalities.
(Quoted from the book
Not So! Popular Myths About America from Columbus to Clinton.
by Paul F. Boller, Jr.
THE PRISONER — Series starring Patrick McGoohan as "number 6" episode 6, "The General" (1967).
What would happen if a computer could just beam all the facts into your brain—
would that make you educated? I recommend the classic Patrick McGoohan series The Prisoner
episode 6 titled "The General."
The Prisoner - Complete Collection
Or just buy the 2nd DVD which has the episode "The General"
The Prisoner - Set 2: Checkmate/ The Chimes of Big Ben/ A, B and C/ The General (Bonus)
||"Now, ask the Computer---"
"A question that can't be answered."
"There is a question that the Computer can not answer."
"Allow me to ask it."
Number 6 presses four keys on the keyboard. Dials immediately move to their "Danger" zones. The computer starts to roar and spark. Smoke pours out of the Computer's ventilation grilles, followed by a massive explosion. The Computer, which could teach you everything by just beaming all the answers into your brain, is destroyed.
"What was the question?"
"It's insoluble, for man or machine. — W. H. Y. Question mark."
(Transcript of entire episode)
(Brief Synopsis of episode)
No, this was not one of those "mad computer runs amok and gets talked to death by Captain Kirk" type of stories. To assume that it is just a silly question creating a breakdown in a computer, you have to ignore the fact that the show is an allegory. It is not the computer that is destroyed by a question, but what the machine represents.
The story deals with two important questions: education and trust. The question it asks about education is that of its aim. What is education all about? One obvious answer to that is that it is the imparting of facts into a willing mind. Socrates saw the mind as a blank slate, waiting to be written on, and this theory of education corresponds to his theory. You write the required facts on the brain, and educate it. This is the main basis behind virtually all systems of education. A curriculum is laid out, a set of items that a student must know by the end of a course. If he can parrot back the information at the end of the course, then he's a great student.
Quite. But are learning facts and education synonymous? Speedlearn here teaches students the facts in 15 seconds — but they cannot use the facts. The facts they know are, first, useless facts. History is all very well in its place ("Those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it," is the obvious message), but how practical is it? When the citizens have "learned" their facts, they use them simply to ask questions of each other and to rejoice in their knowledge. It's all a farce, of course — their knowledge doesn't help them, they simply know it. It is pointless knowledge. Secondly, not only is it pointless, but it is also limited. It is immutable and learned by heart — and only able to be used like that. The people have not benefitted from their education — they just have it. As Number 2 correctly points out, it makes them "knowledgeable cabbages".
This sort of learning is clearly not enough. Unless we can apply the knowledge, we may as well not have it. Education cannot simply be the imparting of facts, can it? There must be more to it than that. While I was at school, there was a girl in my class who could recall almost everything she wrote down perfectly. Yet she could not solve a simple mathematical problem. She had a great memory, but little capacity for creative thinking. Education just gave her things to remember, not a basis for her future life. She got great marks in the exams, but that was about it. Here, the aim of education in the show is "one hundred percent entry, one hundred percent pass." The final exam has become everything. This is the problem with rigid education, which doesn't test ability, just memory. Are good memories and capable people always joined? History would suggest otherwise, since many of the greatest men and women of the past have had little enough formal education — people like Edison, Einstein, Jesus, Moses, and so forth. Sometimes it would seem that education brings people into a single mould, and doesn't encourage them to be bright.
This kind of education is generally very inflexible. These are the facts, and you must learn them. Why not, then, short-circuit the learning process and apply the message directly to the brain? In the mid-Sixties, subliminal teaching was quite the topic of the day. We all know of the cinema audiences having a message flashed on film faster than the eye can follow to buy an ice cream — and ice cream sales going up. the problem is, if you can affect people like that, where will it stop? Actually, subliminal messages are nowhere near as effective as that would suggest, but there was this horrible picture in people's minds of robotized society, all controlled by subliminal messages flashed over TVs or the cinema.
This is what the Village has in mind here. The benevolent information on history will soon be replaced with the messages they wish to send. We know what sort of messages those will be. But the idea of subliminal influences for education was seriously considered for a while. Any number of Sci-Fi stories about this time suggested the use of machines that implant learning into people's brains, either via computer, during sleep or whatever. It saves all that mucking about in school, so why not? Use the time properly. The Prisoner gave us an answer why not. When you open your minds up to being influenced in any way (and the whole system of education is one such way), then you leave yourself wide open to being conditioned by the very system that teaches you. Schools are attempting in many ways to turn out rows of educated cabbages, which don't think as much.
As the story points out, this is done through trust. The Professor places his trust in science. Science as such is neither good nor evil, but can be used either way by those in control. Many people do trust in science to solve our problems for us. Pollution, the energy crisis, overpopulation, undernourishment — science will solve them all, given time. But this faith may perhaps be misplaced, because there is no such thing as science — It is people who do science, people who work on it. Ultimately, those who believe in science, place their faith in the people who practice science. And people who practice science may be no better equipped to deal with the real world than any other kind of person. One thing that worried me was a suggestion that Isaac Asimov once made that scientists should be left to govern the world, because they understand the world. Is government then to be equated with education also? Would scientists make better politicians than politicians do?
As the Professor puts his trust in science, so the students place their trust in the Professor. The Speedlearn system works because the students open their minds up to a figure they know, love and respect. This is an acknowledged fact; if we love, or respect a person, then we pay greater attention to them. This concept lies behind the whole system of celebrity advertising. Brooke Shields is hired to tell us that she uses a certain brand of underarm deodorant to let people get close to her. Okay, fine, that's her privilege. But she is telling us this not to educate us into her habits, but because the advertising company wants us to think, "Gee, if Brooke buys it, it's gotta be good, 'cause she's so wonderful." It falls down, of course if you don't think Brooke is wonderful. Then you buy a brand she doesn't advertise!! The same applies to any product a celebrity offers to recommend to us. Advertisers know that the average person pays more attention to a celebrity offering a product than to a non-entity offering it. Trust is essential to a system or community working properly, of course. If you are going to catch a train, you trust that if it is supposed to go to a certain destination, then it will go there. You trust that the fare posted is the right fare, and you won't be extorted for further costs whilst underway. You trust the driver to be responsible and able, and to get you there. You trust the general populace not to bomb the train or anything. Whatever you do in the day, you have to use your trust. Trust is implicit to civilization. But trust can always be perverted. The confidence trickster relies on precisely that. Sometimes he will exhort you to trust him. Sometimes, more cunningly, to trust yourself, as in the shell game (three shells, and the pea's under one of them; watch carefully, and tell me which one...). In this story, the General and the Professor are figures of trust. Notice the use of titles here. Titles generally signify positions of authority, general competence and ability. As in the movie slogan: "I'm a doctor; trust me." We sort of subconsciously assume that a title means a person is trustworthy.
Both education and trustfulness come under the hammer in this story. The Villagers trust their authorities. The Professor's wife trusts Number 2. Number 6 trusts only himself, and he is the only one to see through the whole charade. Even Number 12 trusts Number 6 not to betray him, which he doesn't. Needless to say, this show being what it is, other items come into play in the story also.
Above commentary on The Prisoner episode 6, The General, by John Peel, ©1985
(Transcript of entire episode)
(Brief Synopsis of episode)
Chomsky for Beginners (1996)
|Back to Miscellaneous Topics|