December 3, 2012
Since the disaster of the Marxist/Victims-history standards produced by UCLA in 1996, which were censured by a vote of 99-1 in the United States Senate, (the one negative voter thought the "standards" were even worse), History has become, in the comment this year of David Steiner, former Commissioner of Education in New York State, "so politically toxic that no one wants to touch it."
This situation has developed in part because every tiny little multicultural group in the country is outraged if their history does not receive equal (or better) treatment in any history textbook, and in part because the late Howard Zinn's proudly Marxist textbook of United States History has sold more than 2 million copies (not bad for an anti-capitalist who believed "private property is theft").
Most of those who write about the dashing new nonfiction reading suggestions of the Common Core lament the altered and unreasonable burdens on English teachers, and they all seem to have forgotten that most of our high schools have both History departments and History teachers as well. But it seems to be inconceivable and unmentionable that our History teachers might dare to assign history books (nonfiction) and history research papers (nonfiction writing).
The story of how all reading and writing became the complete monopoly of the English Departments is surely a long and complicated one, but however it developed, it seems clear that our History departments have given away any responsibility for assigning books and research papers they may once have owned to the English teachers.
In an October 24, 2012 article in the Wall Street Journal, Michael S. Malone argues that even tech company CEOs are now looking for people who can tell stories (about their enterprise, their product, etc.), and so Mr. Malone of course looks to the English departments to offer the needed expertise in storytelling:
"Could the humanities rebuild the shattered bridge between C.P. Snow's "two cultures" and find a place at the heart of the modern world's virtual institutions? We assume that this will be a century of technology. But if the competition in tech moves to this new battlefield, the edge will go to those institutions that can effectively employ imagination, metaphor, and most of all, storytelling. And not just creative writing, but every discipline in the humanities, from the classics to rhetoric to philosophy. Twenty-first-century storytelling: multimedia, mass customizable, portable and scalable, drawing upon the myths and archetypes of the ancient world, on ethics, and upon a deep understanding of human nature and even religious faith.
The demand is there, but the question is whether the traditional humanities can furnish the supply. If they can't or won't, they will continue to wither away. But surely there are risk-takers out there in those English and classics departments, ready to leap on this opportunity. They'd better hurry, because the other culture won't wait."
Where did we lose the understanding that History is all storytelling, with the additional benefit that it is based on evidence, which is not always so important with fiction? Mr. Malone mentions English and classics departments ("classics to rhetoric to philosophy"), but perhaps for him History has lost its membership in the Humanities? He wants "imagination, metaphor and most of all, storytelling...and myths and archetypes of the ancient world," but he leaves unmentioned the sources of the greatest true stories (nonfiction) ever told in the world--our Historians.
Nevertheless, he is in the mainstream of those who, when asked to think, talk and write about reading and writing in the schools, faithfully and regularly default to the work of the English department and its wonderful world of fiction as the only place to introduce nonfiction!
When did the ideas of having our high school students read an actual complete history book or two and write an actual history research paper or two disappear into the woodwork? The result is that our students arrive in college poorly prepared to read nonfiction books and to write the required term papers, not to mention their inability to do any research.
Neil Postman tells us that "Cicero remarked that the purpose of education is to free the student from the tyranny of the present." That freedom seems more and more out of reach among those who cannot even think about History, which has made History the most unmentionable among all the necessary academic subjects in our schools.Posted by Will Fitzhugh at December 3, 2012 1:58 PM
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