Don’t know much about history
Published: Thursday, November 1, 2012
Updated: Thursday, November 1, 2012 02:11
Famous Czech novelist, Milan Kundera once said, ”If you want to destroy a country, destroy its memory.” US History, the study of how we came to be and where we are as a country, can be vital to the decision making process that guides a country’s future. In the country that gave birth to Thomas Jefferson’s dream of an educated citizenry, colleges and universities may be failing to provide the general historical knowledge for their graduates to become involved and effective citizens.
A study by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) involving students from the top 55 liberal arts colleges and research universities in the U.S. found that 81 percent of students failed a standardized test on American history. Less than 25 percent of the students could identify James Madison as the father of the Constitution, and even fewer — 22 percent of the college seniors included — were able to identify “Government of the people, by the people, for the people” as a line from the Gettysburg Address.
“Students should graduate from college understanding this country’s history, knowing how we got to where we are today, and able to understand contemporary problems, politics and conflicts with at least some historical perspective and context — perspective and contest that are too often missing from public debate,” said Marisa Chappell, an associate professor of history at Oregon State University.
To determine what the U.S.’s top colleges demand in the area of American history, the ACTA looked at the graduation requirements at the same 55 schools surveyed in the study mentioned above, universities as esteemed as Harvard and Amherst. Many of the board’s members were appalled to discover that students can graduate from all of the top colleges without completing a single course in American history.
While OSU offers various United States history courses within both the baccalaureate core and undergraduate curriculum, some professors at OSU believe more could be done.
“I would like to see the bacc core include more historically-oriented courses,” said Christopher Nichols, associate professor of history. “There apparently has been no ‘golden age’ of knowledge of U.S. history. However, this insight should not be seen as succor for inertia, but rather, in my view, with more college and high school graduates than ever, should be a call to arms for citizens and educators to seek new ways of teaching history and civics and reinforcing why it is important to know more about the nation’s history so that they can use those insights and related skills and values to become better, more engaged citizens.”
Chappell maintains faith in OSU’s baccalaureate core options for history, but also has advice regarding more efficient education methods instructors can utilize.
“Education that emphasizes critical thinking rather than rote learning is crucial — I’d rather students understand the big themes and issues of the past that they can define terms or cite dates of specific past events,” Chappell said.
Former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Lynne V. Cheney, believes that colleges and universities nationwide need to develop stronger and eclectic core curriculums with a rigorous course on American history required of all students.
“The course should include the breadth of American history, from the colonial period to the present, and the long struggle to defend liberty against all foes domestic and foreign and to expand democratic rights at home and abroad,” Cheney said. “Students should be required to study the great civic documents of the nation, beginning with the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Federalist papers and the Gettysburg Address. Such a course gives students a sense not only of where the country has been, but what it has meant.”
Students at Oregon State can expand their horizon by taking courses rooted in history, learning from dedicated and cultured professors, and getting involved on campus with organizations such as the History Students Association (HSA).
“Our organization’s main purpose is to bring students and faculty of the department together to enhance our learning. History is an important part of a good education. It doesn’t matter if you know the exact date of the Battle of Bull Run, or can name all the signers of the Declaration of Independence,” said Emma Schwab, treasurer for the History Students Association. “At the end of the day it’s the tools of critical thinking and a basic knowledge of where we come from and where we’re going.”
Gabriella Morrongiello, news reporter