Monday, January 15, 2007

Regular readers of this blog know that there are several themes which run through the posts and provide as much unity to my random thoughts as there's ever likely to be. One of them is a love of and appreciation for history, the back story of the events and people who shaped our world and brought us to the place we are today. Another is the importance of critical thinking. History is in the front of my mind today because of two things: the celebration of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday here in the United States, and an article in this morning's Washington Post on the teaching of history in our schools.

That Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great man is beyond dispute. He was the public face of the civil rights movement of the 1960's that put the spotlight on racial injustice in this country and led directly to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The racial landscape of the United States today testifies to his courage and dynamic leadership, and if relations between the races are still not what they should be, the blame lies on both sides of the racial divide - but that's a topic for another day.

An article in today's Washington Post looks at what high school and college students today know about Martin Luther King, Jr., and it's sobering. According to the article, a recent survey of civic literacy in college students revealed that about 81% understood that King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech was "an expression of hope for racial justice and brotherhood." That's a pretty good percentage. But most of the remaining 19% thought he was advocating the abolition of slavery.

That such beliefs can exist reflects what our history courses teach, and how we teach them. As I still recall vividly after more than 30 years, my high school history lessons were less about the actual lessons of history than about the rote memorization of key names, dates, and occurances. The simple knowledge of historical facts, without context and interpretation, teaches us nothing. Even worse, the uncritical interpretation of historical facts and events can lead to bad decisions on policies and actions. The famous book Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers, by Richard Neustadt and Ernest May, presents more than 20 case studies in which government decision makers looked at the relevant historical context of choices they had to make and then, for various reasons, chose an interpretation of the historical lessons which led to poor (if not disastrous) policy choices. One wonders how a future edition of this book will look at President Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003.

The lesson here, of course, is that history is important. It's more than memorizing facts. Events that happened long before we were born were carried out by real people living in a real world with real hopes and fears. What they did, and why they did it, shaped the world in which we live and provides the context for the choices we make.

The Washington Post article (which starts on Page B1 of the print edition, and can be read online at contains an interesting observation by a 17-year old high school student who says, "...Martin Luther King Day means much more than Lincoln or Washington's Birthday." Of course, this young lady lives in a time much closer to King than to either Washington or Lincoln. But to believe that George Washington - the "indispensable man" without whom there would probably never have been an independent United States at all, or Abraham Lincoln - who led the nation through the horrific trauma of the Civil War and ensured that there would actually be a single American nation, are less important than Martin Luther King, Jr., seriously stretches credulity. It's important to honor Rev. King, and to recognize what his work meant to the future of the United States. But to imply that his life and achievements transcend those of Washington and Lincoln is historically irresponsible.

Study history, and think about how those long-ago events affect your own life. You'll find it richly rewarding and make yourself a more informed citizen.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


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