Institutionally, our country fosters historical
amnesia. In 1995, the U.S. Department of Education reported that more
than half of all high school seniors hadn't even the most basic
understanding of American history.
Learning from the Past
Thomas Jefferson wrote that schooling in America
should be "chiefly historical." He said, "The people are the
ultimate guardians of their own liberty. History, by apprising them
of the past, will enable them to judge of the future. It will avail
them of the experience of other times and other nations; it will
qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men." A century
later Woodrow Wilson agreed that history endows us with "the
invaluable mental power, which we call judgment."
Our founding fathers believed that democracy has a
special need for education and history, because democracy is
government by the people. The people must acquire "democratic
virtues" and learn through instructive examples from history respect
for the rights of individuals, regard for the law, voluntary
participation in public life, and concern for the common good.
A Sense of Perspective
David McCullough has stated, "Indifference to
history isn't just ignorant; it's a form of ingratitude. And the
scale of our ignorance seems especially shameful in the face of
our unprecedented good fortune. ... I'm convinced that history
encourages, as nothing else does, a sense of proportion about
life, gives us a sense of how brief is our time on earth and
thus how valuable that time is."
History recounts important stories of events
and people who can serve as models of who to be, and not to be,
what to be involved with and what to avoid and can serve as the
basis of decision-making all our lives.
The Socio-Economic Need for History
The discipline of history provides skills such
as critical thinking about documents, cause and effect
relationships, and abilities to read and summarize material,
often to journalize and understand one's local history in order
to make more informed decisions.
In the School Quality Standards published in
January 1999, a student is required to take three years of
social studies/history. A student is not required to take
American history and can graduate from a Vermont high school
with no history courses. (School Quality Standards, Section
2126.96.36.199, p. 12).
A further indication of the lack of importance
imparted to this discipline is that 15 years ago John Nelson was
the Social Studies/History Consultant in the Department of
Education. Since then there has been no Coordinator in this
discipline. Areas such as writing, science, and math are
recognized and have their coordinators.
The poverty rate for Vermont, and its impact
on formal learning and appreciation of traditional American
history, is particularly alarming. Because fewer Vermont
graduating seniors are going on to postsecondary education, the
need for a strong American history curriculum becomes even more
essential for high schools and elementary schools if they are to
be knowledgeable citizens and value participatory democracy. It
may well be the last formal opportunity for these citizens to
study and appreciate the contributions of others in the shaping
and development of the United States.
According to the statistics of the Boys and
Girls Club in Rutland one out of every five children lives below
the poverty line. The child welfare rate is double that of the
rest of the state. The median family income is $3,697 lower than
the state average and 76% of elementary school-age children
qualifies for free or reduced lunch. The lack of financial
resources often limits further formal education. Vermont ranks
45th in the nation for states with the fewest numbers of
students who go on to higher education (Postsecondary Education
Opportunity, September, 2002).
Vermont had the highest percentage of poverty
rates for children under 19 of all the New England states and
was close to 10% higher than the New England average.