Letter from the Editor Late Summer 2019: Should Schools Teach History?

My wife and I recently visited my son and daughter-in-law in Philadelphia. My wife had been to Philadelphia when she was in school, but I had never been there. Among other things, we saw the Liberty Bell and Congress Hall, which served as the seat of government for the first years of our republic.

The thing I noticed most about this little tour was how many people from other countries were there to visit these places. In fact, we seemed to be among the few Americans in any of the places we visited. Most spoke in a foreign tongue, and even though it was mid-October we saw no school groups at all.

It occurred to me all of a sudden that people from other countries may be more interested in our nation’s history than we are.

It brought to mind news stories I had read only a month or two before about Colonial Williamsburg having to drastically cut its budget and lay off a number of its staff. Mitchell B. Riess, president and CEO of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, revealed that the historical site attracts only half the number of people it attracted thirty years ago.

He attributed part of the cuts to business decisions made in previous years, as well as “changing tastes.” But he also mentioned a frightening fact: “[L]ess American history is being taught in schools.”

Our Philadelphia experience also made me think of the Sergeant York Home in northern Tennessee, a tourist destination that honors the greatest American war hero of World War I. When we drove by it twenty years ago it appeared to be a popular tourist destination. But when we drove by it recently the gift shop was closed, and though the grounds were open they were in a sad state of disrepair.

Our little vacation brought to mind all of the historical places my parents took us when we grew up: the Smithsonian Institution, the Lincoln Memorial, the White House, and the California Missions. My family enjoyed them because we had been taught about them in school and consequently they were objects of wonder to us.

Karol Markowicz wrote a frightening article in the New York Post a couple years ago. She wrote that, according to the 2014 report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, “an abysmal eighteen percent of American high school kids were proficient in U.S. history.” And further, she said, “a 2012 story in Perspectives on History magazine … found that eighty-eight percent of elementary school teachers considered teaching history a low priority.”

I recently searched “teaching of history in schools” online. Many of the hits were links to articles with titles like, “Why We Should Teach History in Schools.” Is this really an issue? Is the teaching of history in schools really open to question?

That we should teach history—our own as well as the history of the Western world that formed us—to our children should not be controversial.

I had a sort of vision during my Philadelphia visit—a vision of a future society poking around blindly in the ruins of a once-great civilization, wondering what it was that made it great and why it was worth remembering.

That is a chilling vision, but one that reminded me of the importance of what we do here at Memoria Press, where history is still important.

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