In a battle of celebrity versus substance, substance almost always loses. Such was the case this past week in D.C. and Virginia, where the Queen Mother set hearts a-flutter. Wherever she went, people clamored for tickets to see her, fretted about protocol should they actually meet her, and gleefully endured traffic snarls and cool weather to greet her.
The principal reason for her visit, however, isn’t generating the same buzz. Four hundred years ago this weekend, the Jamestown settlement was founded. It was the site of our first representative government, the cradle of tobacco (a noxious weed today, but a cash cow back then and the reason the slave trade exploded), and possibly the entry point of earthworms (slimy, but a big, big deal). Yet many, it seems, could care less.
To be sure, scholars and the well-read are debating recent discoveries. (The fort was unearthed just 13 years ago, while Werowocomoco — home of Chief Powhatan — was found in 2003.)
Why, we should ask, does celebrity trump substance? Why fall all over the charming queen when we can crawl (personally or virtually) all over the first permanent English settlement in the New World? In large measure, because too few of us have much ‘‘substance’’ with which to work. It’s hard to know what to do with Jamestown if your only exposure to its role in American history was the 1995 Disney movie Pocahontas.
Yes, fortunate young people receive an education that values history. But too many students must make do with whatever information they can glean from cut-and-paste textbooks, frequently untrained instructors, or, if they’re lucky, their parents.
That history is taught so poorly is no accident of history, so to speak, as Diane Ravitch points out in her recent OAH Magazine of History article. By the early 20th century, an array of forces had managed to limit in-depth history instruction to a select few. Surprisingly, it was the ‘‘professional historians’’ who led the charge. Scholars such as medievalist A.C. Krey deemed their discipline’s rigor beyond the ‘‘competence of the average student,’’ explains Ravitch. The subject, wrote Krey in 1929, also wasn’t critical to students’ ‘‘effective participation in society.’’
That damage has lasted. It’s most visible in the woeful performance of U.S. youngsters on history assessments such as NAEP. But the real damage is harder to measure — it’s the tens of thousands of Americans who will never find a place in the perpetual debate about the direction of the nation because they lack the fundamental knowledge to engage the discussion and shape their own futures.
The end result is citizens who celebrate a queen, while misunderstanding — or ignoring altogether — a crown jewel in their own backyard.
– Martin A. Davis Jr. is senior writer and editor at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.