I love history, always have, and I’m astonished that other people–most others!–don’t.
History is life and death, war and peace, courage and betrayal, sex and violence…a lot of sex and violence!
What’s not to like?
But dislike it they do, and from that distaste ignorance has grown.
“We are raising a generation of young Americans who are by-and-large historically illiterate,” popular historian David McCullough has warned.
Evidence of that illiteracy is rampant…and hilarious.
Dr. Anders Henriksson, a history professor, has collected college students’ history bloopers in a book, Non Campus Mentis. Among many other hysterical things, you will find that some students think:
Joan of Arc was Noah's wife.
Gothic cathedrals were held up by flying buttocks.
At the end of World War Two, Hitler had his wife Evita put to sleep, and then shot himself in the bonker.
Yet another professor, Sam Wineburg, insists we shouldn’t be too, surprised or upset. Testing that dates back to 1917 has show American students have always had a tenuous grasp of history. He further notes that “ when historians trained at Stanford, Berkeley and Harvard answered questions from a leading high school textbook, they scored a mere 35 percent – in some cases lower than a comparison group of high school students taking Advanced Placement U.S. History.”
Geez, Prof, that’s supposed to make me feel better?
Most disturbingly, though, is a study in which people “were asked to "pick one word or phrase to describe your experience with history classes in elementary or high school.”
"Boring" was the most frequent answer.
David McCullough is not surprised, saying, “The textbooks are dreary, they’re done by committee, they’re often hilariously politically correct and they’re not doing any good.”
But there is a solution and it comes from famed historian Barbara Tuchman: “Tell stories.”
“That’s what history is: a story,” McCullough explains. A story “calls for empathy on the part of the teller…and of the reader or listener to the story…. (Children) should not have to read anything that we, you and I, wouldn’t want to read ourselves. And there are wonderful books, past and present. There is literature in history.”
For a writer of history, they’re not bad words to hang a career on.