Monday, September 21, 2009

George Who?

You know the drill...Jay Leno stops people on the street and asks them simple questions and that's where the fun begins. Recently he stopped a nice young man and asked him to name some Founding Fathers. "Founding Fathers of what?" he asked rather belligerently. OK, maybe it was staged...but...

Only a quarter of high school students in a recent poll could identify the first president of the U.S. Few could list the 3 branches of government. Forget about any real understanding of our our system of government and how it works. The findings of the latest poll reflect many other more scientifically sound studies that show up year after year.

Thomas Jefferson sums it up best: If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.
Whether you are a Democrat, Republican, Independent, or have some other affiliation, the lack of knowledge of our history and understanding of our government is frightening. It could foreshadow disaster.

What is to be done?

  • Develop an engaging curriculum at every level of eduction from elementary school through college; involve educators, parents, students, historians, and instructional designers

  • Train teachers at every level to become knowledgeable and involved; provide them with materials and support to develop lessons that capture students' interests

  • Bring history to life with field trips to local historical sites and visits to local government meetings; Every student should visit Washington, D.C. at least once during his or her 12 years in school

  • Focus less on standardized testing and more on involving students in recreating critical events from our history, debating the great issues, applying lessons to their own lives.
This will not be easy. Political debate will rage around the curriculum and determining the "correct" facts and their interpretation. But as the PBS series on the Civil War and the HBO series on John Adams have shown, when you present history in a compelling way, people will be involved and come away glad to have learned something about two crucial periods in our history that still have echos in the present.

When the John Adam series was first running on TV, Greg Swienton, CEO of Ryder System, would gather anyone who was interested to discuss the previous nights episode. These were lively ad hoc conversations. Imagine that in your busy work place. When was the last time you gathered to chat about history? When was the last time you talked with your kids or grandkids about history or took them to visit a historic site or city council meeting?

If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.

(c) Rebecca Staton-Reinstein,

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