If we want the young to learn history, we must find appealing ways to teach it
Back in June, the National Assessment of Educational Progress issued a report card. Where history was concerned, the grade was a resounding “F.” Shown an iconic photograph of Abraham Lincoln, only 9 percent of high school seniors could identify his face and accomplishments. And this abysmal result comes after the Lincoln bicentennial and the launch of a Civil War 150th anniversary that enthusiasts believe is attracting a wide following.
No wonder the historian David McCullough lamented, “What have we been doing so wrong?” After speaking at 100 colleges in the past quarter century, he remains surprised at “how much young people—even at the most esteemed institutions of higher learning—don’t know.”
McCullough’s prescriptions are simple: Make textbooks livelier, respect rather than demonize teachers, integrate drama with history and above all, tell our own stories to our sons and daughters. “Take our children to historic places,” he urges. “Go to Gettysburg.”
But the NAEP report suggests learning gaps too wide to be bridged by a visit to Seminary Ridge. Worse, blessed with increasing input over what their children should be learning, Republican parents apparently want the emphasis placed on facts and dates, Democrats on values. Meanwhile, their children appear to be absorbing none of the above.
Sadly, a real cure may be generations away, meaning those who are working bravely to make an immediate difference merit particular praise and support. For all its flaws, for example, Robert Redford’s first Civil War–era film, The Conspirator, deserves young audiences, even if they come principally to see heartthrob actor James McAvoy. Then there’s the Academy Award–winning Richard Dreyfuss, who might otherwise be profitably landing new movie roles himself. Instead, he is focusing on his new Dreyfuss Initiative, which is lobbying furiously to reintroduce civics education to our schools. (Disclosure: I serve on the board.) Like McCullough, Dreyfuss knows historical drama offers a particularly powerful way to engage young people in unforgettable projects. So he has created a lucrative competition for new history plays, which one hopes will not only be produced professionally, but made available nationwide on the Internet.
Unfortunately, most mass communication celebrates the worst for the most. In an age that showcases survivors, idols and klutzes who dance with stars, why, one asks, can’t quality time be devoted to honoring people for brains, not bling? Jeopardy alone is not enough. Readers old enough to remember Information, Please and Meeting of Minds fondly recall an age in which the public valued attributes other than Kirstie Alley’s ability to lose weight while doing the tango.
Around the same time the NAEP report came out, I had an “educational” experience of my own in an unexpected setting: a new Washington restaurant called Lincoln. Washington City Paper food critic Chris Schott, author of its “Young and Hungry” column, decided to review the place in my company so we could talk about Lincoln’s own culinary preferences—such as they were—while sampling the food and drink.
I will leave assessment of the menu to the young and hungry Chris, but suffice it to say that both the drinks, like the Gettysburg Address (beet puree, lemon, Botanical Veev and bitters), and the food (organic kale salad, beef carpaccio and Lincoln charcuterie) have as little to do with Lincoln’s tastes as Coquille St. Jacques or Burger King. (For the full story, see Wayne C. Temple’s excellent book, “The Taste is in My Mouth a Little”: Lincoln’s Edibles and Potables.)
Still, Lincoln’s ambience was fun without being oppressive, offering subtle history lessons in the bargain. Servers wear black tees emblazoned with an Alexander Gardner photo of Lincoln. Walls feature appealing Lincoln graphics designed by O’Neill Studios. A chosen few get to sit in an enormous, high-backed white leather banquette suggesting the throne-like marble chair of the Lincoln Memorial. We got to perch before a neon installation inscribed with the words of the Eman-cipation Proclamation—in hot pink. And one can’t enter or exit without treading over a floor composed of hundreds of thousands of Lincoln copper pennies.
The patrons—hip, noisy, distracted and as young and hungry as my host—seemed to spend precious little time debating Lincoln’s use of executive powers in wartime or his sincerity as a liberator. But in a tangible and hopefully memorable way, these kids, probably no better informed than the 12th graders who failed the NAEP test, were digesting Lincoln information as surely as they were consuming heirloom tomato risotto. Oh, yes, the better-informed servers even tell you which dishes Lincoln himself might have consumed—like the trout, oysters, corn on the cob and funnel cake with cherries. Here is the sort of painless, enjoyable history that ought to teach a valuable lesson to the lesson-plan writers. Good nourishment, for the stomach or the mind, only makes us want to consume more.
By the way, on my trip home to New York, I was bombarded with e-mails decrying that NAEP press release. It turns out that, buried within its report is the fact that a heartening 94 percent actually did recognize Lincoln’s picture. The pass-fail ratio plummeted only when the students were asked to choose two reasons why Lincoln made history. Among the “wrong” answers many kids chose: “He helped slaves escape,” which arguably he did, by issuing an Emancipation Procla-mation that offered freedom to slaves who escaped into Union lines. Also marked incorrect was the choice “He fought in some wars.” Yet he was not only commander in chief from 1861 to 1865, but a veteran of the Black Hawk Indian War. How many wars constitute “some”?
I don’t know if all this should give history enthusiasts a sense of relief or increased heartache. It’s one thing for test-takers to fail, but quite another when test-givers botch things up. Things may be worse than we thought. Do-over. And above all, let’s make it a pleasure to learn the useful and inspiring past. Lincoln predicted that his generation would be remembered “in spite of ourselves.” Let’s not be the first generation to forget.
Harold Holzer chairs the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation.