Is anyone really surprised by our report yesterday about fewer than 50-percent of students surveyed at Marian University getting a passing grade on a test of American History? I'm not bashing the kids at Marian--it's not that they are stupid or ignorant--they are merely the product of a flawed way of teaching history.
The problem in the system starts with the dependence on thick textbooks that are usually very dry and packed with the kind of minutia that makes kids' eyes glaze over. In addition, the texts tend to over-emphasize things that--in the eventual grand scheme of things--really didn't have that big an impact on American society (remember the weeks that were spent on the Teapot Dome Scandal?)
Teachers compound the problem by sticking with the lesson plans that come with these books--instead of skipping stuff they know aren't that important--and getting more in depth with the topics and events that directly impact today's society. Because isn't that why we study history--to gain greater insight into the people we are today? What decisions made in Philadelphia in 1787 shaped the way we live here in the US today? Why did Lincoln really fight the Civil War? (It wasn't to free the slaves). What were the real economic factors that caused the Great Depression?
Another issue is the revisionist history attempt to "multi-culturalize" more than necessary. I'm sorry that many of the biggest decisions in our history were made by white men. Teach the kids why women and minorities were kept out of the process--but don't elevate bit players to equal status with the major figures. Blend in the non-white societies as they rose to prominance.
And here's a radical idea: why not teach history in "reverse". Sometimes we can tell a story better by starting at the end. Focus on those events closest to us now--then review the factors that led to them. Start with the war in Iraq--lead into 9-11, the first Iraq war, the economic boom of the 80's the malaise of the 70's, Watergate and on and on. Hook kids with the "good" stuff and lead them into the wonderful fabric that our ancestors have woven for us.