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We need new way of teaching history


To a generation that came of age with John Kennedy’s challenge to “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” the suggestion that we go shopping fell a little flat. Then we were told we should volunteer in our communities to strengthen the nation in its war on terrorism. Better. But not good enough.

Then there was the children’s program, a sort of war on terrorism Sunday school in which the children of America were asked to get on board by sending in their dollars to help buy food and medicine for Afghan children. Strangely, with this idea George Bush actually is pointing in a direction where average Americans really can make a difference. This is so even though the children’s dollar-collection campaign is, at best, a transparently inadequate public-relations response to the misery of the Afghans, now made more miserable by American bombs and the prospect of starvation. Nevertheless, Bush’s idea of involving the children is a symbolic step in the right direction. That direction is, at once, the future and the past.

If our children are to have a future, they must know the past, but our generation has been almost a total failure in the legacy department. And if our children are to have a future, they must prepare to share it with children from many other cultures, but our generation has done little to prepare them for the world they will inherit. Our lack of knowledge about the world outside America -- and America’s role in it -- has caught up with us. Our inclination to combine the teaching of history with the coaching of high school football has made us an ignorant people with the best football teams in the world. And it has made us a people whose news magazines must explain to us, as Newsweek did recently, “Why they hate us.”

This is not the first time we have been caught off-guard. When the Russians launched their Sputnik in 1957, threatening American dominance in science and technology, American leaders began demanding that our schools emphasize science and math. That emphasis yielded some spectacular achievements. It also yielded a distortion that equates classroom computers with educational excellence. Whatever else we might say about our generation’s emphasis on technology, its limits were painfully apparent Sept. 11.

Now America faces a crisis of infinitely more consequence than we faced with Sputnik, and this time math and science are not the answers. This time, what we need is an ambitious, nationwide dedication to the study of history -- our own history and the histories of the other people with whom our children will share the planet when we are gone. And by the study of history, I do not mean the mind-numbing memorization of generals’ names and battle dates, or the lifeless “social studies” model. What we need is a new way of communicating history as the story of humanity, a new way of teaching how our past has led to our present, and of how our present is creating our future. What is needed is deep exploration of the ideas and events that shape our world, whether we pay attention to them or not. And this deep exploration must be part of everyone’s basic education, not just that of a small elite. We should give history the sort of emphasis we have given math and science for the past four decades.

In our grief and righteous anger since Sept. 11, an irony has gone largely unnoticed. The overwhelming majority of Americans descend from immigrants who came here from all over the world, yet we know so little about it. What can we do for our country? The answer, too, is ironic. We can learn about other countries. And we can teach our children. Yes, encourage them to send their dollars to buy food and medicine for the little Afghan children. And then, turn off the cartoons for a while and start their education.

Let the next generation of Americans know the world and its people better than we do. Let them know our Constitution and how its meaning has evolved. Let them know also why other people live under other values, what those values are, and how they challenge our own. Let them learn to pledge allegiance to the flag and to be patriotic, but let them also learn to be respectful of other people who pledge to different flags. Then, perhaps, when their generation is running America, there will be less need for a news magazine to explain “why they hate us.”

Mary Bader, a former NCR columnist, is a writer in Minneapolis.

National Catholic Reporter, December 14, 2001