essential historical facts?

I believe that people should know some facts about politics, history, and law. You can’t get along with skills alone; and not all facts are equally important. But how do we reason about what information is essential and what is trivial?

At an event earlier this week, I heard Eugene Hickock, a former US Deputy Secretary of Education, tell two stories that he intended to shock the audience. He had recently asked a family friend who is an excellent current college student to name the final battle of the Revolutionary War, and she couldn’t come up with “Yorktown.” (In the audience, all our jaws were supposed to drop when we heard this.) Also, Dr. Hickock now teaches constitutionalism in law school. Since the states are the issue in federalism, he asks his students to name all of the state capitals–and they cannot do it!

Now, I happen to think that a list of state capitals is mere trivia (you can look them up if you need them), although if an adult US citizen doesn’t know about Sacramento, Austin, or Albany, that may reflect a lack of experience reading political news. I understand the significance of Yorktown and recognize that sacrifices were made there that have benefitted us ever since. And yet I would put the name of Yorktown far down on a list of important historical facts–far, far below the First Amendment, Franklin’s diplomacy in France, the Stamp Tax, the existence of slavery in the colonies, and even the battles of Lexington and Concord.

I suspect that a room of reasonably open-minded people would soon agree about many items on a list of crucial facts and concepts, but some disagreements would persist. What criteria can we use to address such differences?

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3 Responses to essential historical facts?

  1. That is an interesting question, indeed. How do you differentiate between how crucial a fact is versus how trivial another is?

    On one level, I think it depends on what you are defining. With certain historical events, there are certain things that can be definined as essential. For example, most would agree that Germany’s invasion of the Sudetenland was one of the events that led up to World War II.

    Other events, though, don’t lend themselves to it. For example, let’s look at various components of information technology. As one who has spent the last few years doing it, what I define as essential versus what a user or an application developer defines as crucial are two completely different things.

    To address differences, though, may require bringing all of the various constituents together. Essentially defining crucial components–with some attention paid to not defining those extraneous matters. Something tells me that it would take some time to reach consensus, though, depending on the matter at hand.

    P.S. Nice to see you have a blog, Peter! I added you to my blogroll.

  2. mwallae1 says:

    about halfway through, i was really hoping you weren’t actually going to agree that not knowing “Yorktown” was a problem (especially since i didn’t.)

    i would argue that historical events are important in two very different ways. some have direct links to today; for example, understanding the rough era in which each state was created does actually say something about where the states are today (understanding Oregon coming after New York is directly played out in what the two look like in the present. other events are really just useful as examples: Yorktown, for example, could be an important lesson about battle dynamics or what leads up to conflict or how conflicts end or any of a dozen other topics. but it isn’t really vitally important to the state of the nation today. if Yorktown had happened in Williamsburg, very little of the national context would be changed. if Oregon had been settled before New York, rather alot would be different.

    thus, i think you could make some sort of gradient scale of the first type of knowledge, with things that have a more direct impact on today (the Constitution comes before when states came into being comes before state capitals), and try to hit the highlights for the top ten percent of that, getting poli-econ-soci-psycho-histo all covered in there. the rest and type 2? use them examples to discuss and flex that brain muscle, but don’t be mad if people don’t know them off the top of their head. the disagreements, to me, would all probably not make the 10% cut anyway.

  3. I have always been rather taken with the attempt to tackle remembering and historical memory that can be found in existenz philosophy.

    To know all of the fifty states or Yorktown, well, it becomes difficult to rise up above the question of “who cares?” for many. What is a more disturbing trend of historical memory is when we fail to know the history and its significance of those things in what we claim to have an interest in. As an example, how many people who claim interest in abortion and claim that they “feel strongly” about it know that the issue was started almost entirely by doctors to try to legitimize what we now call the medical establishment? (see Kristen Luker’s “Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood” for a well done account of this)

    I wonder, I wonder very seriously, how much education is aimed in any meaningful way at helping children and future citizens pursue their “self interest, rightly understood”, to borrow from Dr. Mansfield. The enlightenment and public education was supposed to provide tools of empowerment, and not, I think, create social strata litmus tests based on whether we can put Antietam, Gettysburg, Murfreesboro, and The Wilderness in chronological order or not. School has become, in large part, a place of limits, whereas learning is supposed to arm an individual to break through limits.

    Dr. Levine asks about criterion of important historical facts, and there are facts that eclipse, I believe, anything he manages to list either on his own account or from Mr. Hickock’s two examples. While they are of such incredible importance, these facts still do not seem to escape ignorance in the general populace.

    I recently went to a panel discussion at Vanderbilt Law School called, “is Constitution Day Constitutional?” In the midst of this debate, a law professor cited some astonishing facts. “51% of high school students surveyed believe the media doesn’t need government approval befoe running a story. 27% of students believed that the government should be allowed to punish people for expressing unpopular opinions.”

    These facts put Mr. Hickock’s supposed “jaw-droppers” to shame. If our students do not know the history and content of our civil liberties and civil rights, how can we expect them to be anything but infantile citizens?

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