The Southern Poverty Law Center is appalled by the results of a new study finding that states are not teaching the history of the civil rights era. The SPLC, which commissioned the study of state curricula, concludes that students in at least 35 states are missing out on important facts about our history. And even in states that include units on civil rights, "their civil rights education boils down to two people and four words: Rosa Parks, Dr. King and 'I have a dream.'"
On one hand, you want to welcome disgruntled liberals to the club of those worried about historical amnesia among the young. We conservatives have been worrying about it for decades. On the other hand, it's tough to believe that American students are being cheated of knowledge about civil rights, compared with say, knowledge about World War II, or the progressive movement or the nullification crisis. One of my sons, who has been educated in public schools most of his life, offered that in his experience, American history is taught as "the Revolution, the internment of the Japanese during World War II and the civil rights movement."
When Common Core, an advocacy group for educational standards, surveyed American teenagers in 2008, they found that nearly a quarter were not able to correctly identify Adolf Hitler, but 97 percent knew who delivered the "I have a dream" speech. Care to speculate about how many would know who Joseph Stalin was?
Teaching history is inevitably a somewhat political act -- which is why an effort during the 1990s to establish national standards foundered in acrimony and bitterness. Some textbooks in wide use in America devote pages and pages to the so-called "McCarthy era" while neglecting much else and are written in a tone of condescension toward our forebears. Fights over textbook content in leading states like Texas have become protracted tugs of war between competing visions of our nation.
One suspects that only Howard Zinn's version of history would meet with the approval of the SPLC, and there are perhaps some on the right who might want to airbrush Joe McCarthy out altogether. But if we cannot come to some meeting of the minds on teaching the fundamentals of our history, we will have a drastically diminished future. The National Assessment of Educational Progress found in 2010 that only 12 percent of high school seniors were proficient in history.
The founders believed that special skills were necessary for free, self-governing individuals. Our second president, John Adams, said, "Children should be educated and instructed in the principles of freedom." Thomas Jefferson proposed a system of public schools to instill the necessary knowledge and attitudes, saying memorably "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be."
When Ronald Reagan reflected on his eight years as president in his farewell address, he mentioned that one of the things he was proudest of was the renewed spirit of patriotism in the country. "This national feeling is good," he said, "but it won't count for much, and it won't last unless it's grounded in thoughtfulness and knowledge." Recalling that his generation had absorbed "almost in the air, a love of country and an appreciation for its institutions," he noted that "Younger parents aren't sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children." And in what may have been the understatement of the decade, he said ". . . As for those who create the popular culture, well-grounded patriotism is no longer the style."
"We've got to do a better job," Reagan warned, "of getting across that America is freedom -- freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise. And freedom is special and rare. It's fragile; it needs protection."
When liberals tell the story of America -- and they overwhelmingly dominate the education establishment -- they tend to focus excessively on our flaws and sins. By all means, our kids need to know about the civil rights movement, just as they should know all about slavery and Jim Crow. But they should also be taught that this country overcame an ugly history of slavery and racism to a degree unequaled by any other nation on Earth. Nations that have practiced slavery (some still do) and racism are in legion. Those that have managed to transform themselves -- to listen to the "better angels of their nature" -- are incredibly rare.
In this, as in so much else, the U.S. is exemplary. If the public schools could convey just that much, it would be progress.