The New York Times reported in January on yet another study showing dismal performance by U.S. students in science. The news was depressing, if not surprising, but the part of the article that really stuck with me was a throw-away line that didn’t have much to do with science:
But the results showed that a smaller proportion of 12th graders demonstrated proficiency in science than in any other subject that the government has tested since 2005 — except history.
If I’m reading that right, U.S. students come out of school with even less understanding of history than they do of science. The article didn’t elaborate, but a summary page about the test showed somewhere between 11 and 18 percent of students performing at the proficient rate, and less than 2 percent at advanced.
I’m sure it’s true. U.S. voters certainly demonstrate their ignorance of history most election years. But it makes no sense to me. Why don’t people get history?
I mean, history is just stories. And who doesn’t like stories? Both history and story are rooted in the Latin word historia. In modern usage, history generally implies a true story, while story can mean either fiction or fact. Regardless, they both mean narratives.
For some reason, though, the study of history always gets labeled as boring. Look at the Harry Potter books, for example: History at Hogwarts is taught by a ghost, Professor Binns, who drones on and on and is mostly ignored by the students.
In contrast, I can’t ever remember being bored in a history class, even in one with a less-than-inspired teacher. And I remember some very inspired teachers, especially in high school. They clearly loved their subject. Mr. Christian could wax poetic on Texas Indians and the history of Texas up until statehood (after that, he said, it was just like the history of every other state and not worth studying). Mr. Parker was obsessed with Henry VIII.
I caught the fever from them. If I’d had to major in something in college — I was in a liberal arts program that allowed me to jump around without picking a concentration — it would have been history, not English, even though I’m a writer and love literature. English majors were required to take courses I considered boring, like 19th Century American literature (an era I have only lately begun to appreciate).
Besides, while great English teachers inspired me to new adventures in both reading and writing, bad ones did bore me. I love Shakespeare — I began reading the plays when I was about ten — but I had such a bad teacher in college that I snuck other books into class to read. I did the same thing in senior English in high school: While my teacher was murdering Yeats, I sat in the back reading Sartre. I always figured I could read any literature that interested me on my own, though I confess that these days I do crave the opportunity to discuss good literature with other intelligent readers.
You can read history on your own, too, and I do. One of my favorite books from last year was Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People, which I recently reviewed for The Cascadia Subduction Zone. If you look back at the Know Nothings of the 1850s, you’ll see the roots of the Tea Party, especially in their anti-immigrant stance.
It’s good to keep up with history, just as it is with science. New research brings out new perspectives.
I’m damned if I can figure out why more people aren’t interested in history or how it got its bad name. But I’m now going to worry as much about historical illiteracy as I do about the scientific kind.
My novella Changeling is now available as an ebook through Book View Cafe. It’s a coming of age story. And it’s not about faeries.
My story “New Lives” is in the lastest Book View Cafe ebook anthology, The Shadow Conspiracy II.