Education & Academia

History matters

History matters

Amid all the hand-wringing over the recent release of PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) scores showing mediocre achievement by American students in Reading, Science, and Math, I found myself once again wondering: Where was History? Why aren’t we assessing it and publishing the results?

Certainly, nearly every school system across the country has developed and implemented a history and governance curriculum across various grade levels, and new Common Core Standards address this, but why, for so many years, do test scores continue to be aggregated and reported with the omission of the social sciences (except for the painfully recurring appearance on social network sites of appalling misjudgments and misidentifications on U.S. and world geography maps by American students)?

We are rapidly losing a shared heritage of historical knowledge that E. D. Hirsch, Jr., warned us about more than a quarter of a century ago with Cultural Literacy. While researching my most recent book, Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination, I traveled last year to another city and chanced to dine at a fine, upscale restaurant. In the course of the evening its manager came by to welcome me and ask what brought me to her city. When I told her it was to research an aspect of the Lincoln assassination, she looked at me blankly for a moment and then said, “Lincoln was assassinated?” She honestly didn’t know.

She is not alone. If we are losing this much ground nationally in student achievement in Reading, Science and Math, it is frightening to conjecture how far we are falling behind in History. Yet History matters, and matters a great deal.

History is Precedent, and ignorance of precedence goes far beyond George Santayana’s admonition that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Much of the governmental and socio-political structure of our nation is based on precedent—on adherence to the tenets and clauses of the Constitution of the United States, which we justifiably revere. Our courts return to it repeatedly to interpret events two and a half centuries removed from its creation by our founders. How, then, can any adult understand the causes and implications of these events when he or she has not acquired an understanding of precedence in childhood or adolescence?

History is Context—our shared record of the strivings and challenges and setbacks and triumphs of individuals whose lives must be understood in the context of their era—a context that can never be comprehended through the mere memorization of dates. For me, that meant researching and communicating the tribulations and, in some cases, complicity, of a group of forty-six dedicated theatrical employees. As is so often forgotten, the assassination of our sixteenth president occurred in a theatre, by an actor, in front of an audience: context. Recent observations of the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of another president in many cases noted the importance of its context, both in terms of the city of Dallas and of the security parameters, so different from those practiced today.

History is the study of the relationship between the Individual and his/her Society—the role which each of us plays, with its incumbent responsibilities, as a member of a democracy. Yet how are any adults supposed to understand that role and those responsibilities without having previously acquired their “user’s manual”? Voter turnout in the United States is historically anemic. Yet how can an informed selection be made if each person does not understand the issues and candidates in terms of their impact on the life of that individual voter? Does it matter that each voter knows that today’s Republican Party was founded in 1854 and the Democratic in 1832? Not nearly as much as the need to understand the historical development of the values and platforms and campaigns of each party that has brought them to the eve yet another election cycle in 2014.

History matters. History, at the risk of seeming trite, is “Our Story.” And we’re not telling it, or assessing it, very well.

Thomas A. Bogar, a professor of theatre history, is the author of Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination (Regnery History, 2013).

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