They Don’t Know Much About History

In the Lou Adler/Herb Alpert/Sam Cooke song, “(What a) Wonderful World,” the love-struck dreamer sings, “Don’t know much about history…” He later makes this assertion: “Don’t know much about the middle ages, looked at the pictures then I turned the pages, / Don’t know nothin’ ’bout no rise and fall, don’t know nothin’ ’bout nothin’ at all.”

Sixty years later, kids are saying the same thing.

My seventh graders are expected by the State to know how to write three types of essays: persuasive, expository, and narrative. To be successful, they need to know what they are writing about. They need a strong reserve of background information. They need to know how to find the information they don’t know and how to cite their evidence

I use a lot of history-related topics to get my kids motivated to write. I want them to know what a fabulous country this is that they live in! I want them to know about the good, the bad, the ugly and to be able to make this land the best for themselves.

Adolescents can be quite passionate about the things they believe in, and they love to argue. So why not provide them with topics that will tap into that energy and that will meet the prescribed standards as well?

Amazingly, many of our kids have little or no background information when it comes to American history. I do not put the blame on their previous teachers. Those hardworking professionals are teaching what has been prescribed for their kids.

I point my finger at society for allowing history education to be shoved to the sidelines, for not believing that such education is the key to producing strong, independent citizens in a free country.

Perhaps that is the ulterior motive.

All I know is that my kids have severe gaps in knowing anything about U.S. and world history. What is extremely sad is the fact that they are relatively clueless of anything that happened in the past 100 years.

Again, for the most part, this is not their fault.

But if you treat history as a collection of dates and names and places and forget to include the pain, the suffering, the hatred, and the enlightenment, the freedoms gained, the discoveries made… Well, then, you deem history as irrelevant…maybe even dangerous.

As we recently began thinking about the history of the Japanese internment camps of 1940s, I assumed that my kids would be able to relate this terrible racist stain on our history to other stains.

I was amazed that very few knew of the British coming to this country and mistreating and killing Native Americans. At best, a few relayed the twisted story they had heard of Pilgrims and Native Americans having glorious Thanksgiving feasts.

One young lady, writing about the stains on our history, made this preposterous claim:

“Another one was the Native Americans. George Washington sailed to America wanting the land the Native Americans were on. So he became friends with the Native Americans. They taught George everything about the land. Unfortunately, he killed the Native Americans.”

Many knew nothing of the stain of African slavery in this country. Of course, they could tell me about Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but they had no understanding of the years of injustice and pain that formed the backbone of that speech.

A great many could not see the connection between the discrimination of the Japanese a mere 80 years ago with the current prejudice shown to Hispanics, Muslims, those with disabilities, those in the LGBTQ+ community, etc.

They had no strong background knowledge…and with that deficit, they are doomed to repeat history and add stain after stain to the fabric of America’s reputation.

Perhaps ignorance and blind obedience is the unstated objective.

A young man summed things up nicely at the end of his essay:

“We seem to not be able to end this cycle of racism and discrimination. We have more than one stain on our history. The early settlers wanted land so they killed the Native Americans. They took Africans from their homes and families and made them slaves. Even now, certain people think the Mexicans and Muslims should be treated disrespectfully. Americans should learn that we are all humans. We should not treat others differently just because they dress differently or are a different race. Americans need to learn to wash their laundry.”

Copyright, Tim Ramsey, 2020.

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