Don’t Know Much About History
A national shame.


The real star of this election isn’t Sarah Palin — it’s history. In both party conventions, history was celebrated as a very special guest. This election, we were told, will make history. Indeed, it is the most important election in history. Both parties claimed that history was on their side — which means that neither of them can lose. History will remember that it was on this very day that (fill in the blank). If there is one thing that politicians love to talk about — it’s history.

And with good reason. History is a good teacher. You know the old saying: Those who forget the mistakes of the past are, um, well, I forget. But it’s bad, that’s for sure. And history is not only a teacher, but a pretty good entertainer too. Just click on the History Channel or browse through your local bookstore and you’ll see what I mean.

Which brings up an interesting question: If history is such a good teacher, why do we teach so little of it to our young?

Take, for example, history’s place in America’s higher education. Many institutions that are training tomorrow’s leaders don’t seem to think that history is just what they need. At Princeton, for example, those who receive A.B. degrees need take only one course in history — any history. Bachelor of Science students at Princeton can skip history altogether. So can those at Yale. At least Harvard requires its undergraduates to take a pre-modern history course. But that is rare. It’s increasingly difficult today to find a college or university that requires students to study Antiquity, or the Middle Ages, or the Renaissance, or anything at all that occurred before the students’ own short lives.

The problem dates back to the 1960s, when core-curriculum/general-education requirements at many schools were loosened up to make way for more freedom, which ultimately meant more courses in the major. After all, if someone comes to college to study engineering, why should he or she have to study the Hittites? I have listened to my share of parents outraged that their pre-med child is failing my history course. Why, they ask, does a doctor (or engineer, or lawyer, or journalist, or whatever) need to know history? It has no bearing on their lives at all and simply gets in the way of courses that do matter.

Sadly, too many colleges and universities have come to agree with those parents. The end result is a history-education vacuum in America. We have become a society with no long-term memory. We keep discovering anew what we have encountered many times before. For too many Americans, the lessons of the past are restricted to the tiny portion of it with which they have personal experience.

Think about it. During the national debates on the war on terror, lessons from history were as thick in the air as rocket-propelled grenades in Iraq. Liberals launched salvos of Vietnam, arguing that Iraq and Afghanistan were unwinnable quagmires. Conservatives fired back with World War II, insisting that appeasement only emboldens the enemy.