William J. Bennett, U.S. Secretary of Education
September 9, 1986
Once More, A Plea for History
Thank you Mr. President, ladies and gentlemen. I want to join with you, Mr. President, in saluting one of our listeners, Alf Landon. The great American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes once observed: "As all life is action and passion, it is required of a man that he should share the passion and action of his time, the peril of being judged not to have lived." I am honored to pay tribute today to a man whose entire life has been bound up with the actions and passions of his time, a man who has left an enduring mark on the history of his state and his nation.
Since 1912 when he attended the Bull Moose convention of the Progressive Party and campaigned for its presidential candidate, Theodore Roosevelt, Alfred M. Landon has achieved distinction as a clear, reasoned American voice. Twice elected governor of Kansas, and nominated by the Republican Party for the presidency in 1936, Governor Landon has brought to public life a unique combination of broad experience, deep erudition, and sound judgment. He is, in short, a statesman of genuine wisdom which doubtless explains why, at the grand age of 99 years, he is regularly consulted by Presidents, Senators, and Congressmen, and by educators, students, and public officials from all walks of life and all parts of the country. Happy Birthday, Governor Landon. I'm glad you're watching.
My topic today is history and citizenship. It's a plea for the teaching of the first, for the sake of the second. My story begins in 1892, when Alf Landon was five years old. In that year the National Education Association created the now famous Committee of Ten to study ways of developing good citizenship in the schools. Chaired by Harvard's President Charles Eliot and composed of distinguished educators, including five college presidents, the committee recommended an eight year course in history for all students from the fifth through the twelfth grades. Eight years of history, a good idea. Students in the fifth and sixth grades would begin with biography and mythology. American history and government would be taught in the seventh grade; Greek and Roman history in the eighth grade; French history, as an illustration of European history in general, in the ninth grade; English history, because of its contribution to American institutions, in the tenth grade; American history in the eleventh grade; and an intensive study of a special historical topic in the twelfth grade.
In making these recommendations, the Committee of Ten echoed no less an authority than Thomas Jefferson. For Jefferson had written, in 1816, that "History, by appraising [Americans] 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; it will enable them to know ambition under every disguise it may assume; and knowing it, to defeat its views." And here Jefferson echoed another student of history. In the first century A.D., Tacitus had written: "This I regard as history's highest function to let no worthy action be uncommemorated, and to hold out the reprobation of posterity to evil words and deeds."
The Committee of Ten, for its part, in more modern, and therefore restrained parlance, asserted that when historical studies are taught in conjunction with literature, geography, and foreign languages, they "serve to broaden and to cultivate the mind. . . . They counteract a narrow and provincial spirit. . . . They prepare the pupil in an eminent degree for enlightened and intellectual enjoyment in after years . . . and they assist him to exercise a salutary influence upon the affairs of his country."
Several years later, another National Education Association report bless the National Education Association of those days! endorsed these views. History, it argued somewhat more modestly but still confidently, was "peculiarly appropriate in a secondary course, which is fashioned with the thought of preparing boys and girls for the duties of daily life and intelligent citizenship." As a direct result of these reports, by 1915 the overwhelming majority of American high schools offered courses in ancient history, medieval and modern history, English history, and American history.
Given this record of unanimity of opinion on the importance of history for democratic citizenship, one might reasonably have expected that contemporary American students would be fairly well versed in the essentials of American and world history. But this is not the case. As Professor Paul Gagnon of the University of Massachusetts has written: "Today many of our freshmen arrive at college after twelve years of school (presumably in the 'college track') knowing nothing of the pre-Plymouth past, including the Bible! . . . They often know nothing of the deterioration of Athens and Rome, of Czarist Russia, of Weimar Germany, and next to nothing of the history of science, technology, industry, of capitalism and socialism, of fascism or Stalinism, of how we found ourselves in two world wars, or even in Vietnam. They have been asked to read very little and to reflect hardly at all. At eighteen or nineteen, they are unarmed for public discourse, their great energy and their great idealism at the mercy of pop politics and the seven o'clock news."
Professor Gagnon's conclusions are borne out by a number of recent studies. For example, a 1985 survey by the National Assessment of Educational Progress revealed that American eleventh graders know astonishingly little about American history. Thus two-thirds could not place the Civil War within the period 1850 to 1900; one-third did not know the Declaration of Independence was signed between 1750 and 1800; one-third did not know that Columbus sailed before 1750; half could not locate the half-century in which World War I occurred; half did not recognize the names of Winston Churchill or Joseph Stalin.
The point is clear. Too many of our young people are ill-educated about the history, values, and basic principles of our nation and our civilization.
How did it happen? Why don't our students have an adequate grasp of history and geography? Our children did not suddenly, by nature, become more ignorant. They certainly did not choose to become more ignorant. It is not their fault. The answer has to do with changing intellectual fashions in the field of education fashions that affected adults, and fashions that led adults to fail to teach our children what they should know. Let us see why.
Some 25 years after the Committee of Ten published its report on the importance of history, the NEA issued yet another report known as The Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education. This report is generally considered the most influential document in American education in the first half of this century. But what is perhaps most noteworthy about it was its claim that the major purpose of modern education is to promote what it called "social efficiency." It is not clear that Tacitus or Jefferson would have understood this purpose, "social efficiency." I'm sure I don't understand it. The promotion of social efficiency meant, according to its proponents, that "facts, conditions, theories and activities that do not contribute rather directly to the appreciation of methods of human betterment have no claim" on the overwhelming majority of high school students. And included among these "facts, conditions and theories" was the study of history. For how, after all, in this view could history contribute "rather directly" to human betterment? History didn't improve anyone's health; it didn't make anyone a better worker; it didn't teach adolescents how to behave on a date or how to find a job. Thus Professor Diane Ravitch, Columbia University, points to a momentous change in our thinking about history, as she says: "In the new era of social efficiency and pupil interests, the year-long course on ancient history began to disappear from American schools, and before long the four-year history sequence was telescoped to three, then to two, and in many places, to only a single year of American history." The grand claim for the importance of history was disappearing, and with it was the teaching of history.
Today, ladies and gentlemen, even the very subject of history is in danger of losing its distinct identity. It is in danger of becoming absorbed in the smorgasbord of this and that known as "social studies." And as the Council for Basic Education wrote in its 1982 report, Making History Come Alive, "Parents are likely to presume that if their children are taking social studies courses, they are learning history. But they may or may not be."
The Council for Basic Education report largely confirmed the findings of a 1975 study conducted by the Organization of American Historians. The Organization of American Historians noted a significant decline in the teaching of secondary school history throughout the country. It found that in some States "virtually no training in history is demanded" of secondary school teachers.
What we learn from all this is that intellectual fashions matter. And the fashions that are now crippling the study of history, the study of our past, I believe could cripple our future. Before the game is up for history let us once more offer a defense, a plea, an argument for its study. We start by conceding at the outset that history indeed does have little practical utility in the way the physical sciences do. As the great British historian, George Trevelyan, wrote in 1913: "No one can by a knowledge of history, however profound, invent a steam engine, or light a town, or cure cancer, or make wheat grow near the Arctic Circle." Moreover, although historians from Polybius to Toynbee have tried to deduce general laws of "cause and effect" in human affairs comparable to the laws of physical science, all such attempts have failed. For to quote Trevelyan once again, "The law of gravitation may be scientifically proved because it is universal and simple. But the historical law that starvation brings on revolt is not proved; indeed the opposite statement, that starvation leads to abject submission, is equally true in the light of historical evidence. You cannot so completely isolate any historical event from its circumstances as to be able to deduce from it a law of general application. Only politicians, as Trevelyan says, adorning their speeches with historical arguments, have this power; and even they never agree."
But while Trevelyan argued correctly, in my view that history could never be made "scientific" in this way, he insisted, nonetheless, on its centrality. Why then? And why for us?
My first argument is modest. Consider for starters, for an example, the rich and varied history of Governor Landon's home state, Kansas. As everyone here knows, the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 set off a wave of violence in "bloody Kansas" between abolitionists and proslavery. What manner of men were the abolitionists? A number of perfectly respectable historians have branded them "extremists," "impractical," "troublemakers," and "not free of racial prejudice themselves." Other historians, equally respectable, have defended the abolitionists as "men of conscience," "courageous," and "Christian." As it is unlikely that this controversy will ever be definitively resolved, the only way that a student can arrive at a useful judgment about the abolitionists is by reading, by reading different historians, by reading the actual words of the abolitionists and their critics, by being exposed to conflicting points of view, and then by thinking out the problem for himself. And in the process of thinking things out, of weighing the facts and searching for the truth, he acquires a respect for facts and for the proper methods of weighing evidence. He learns or should learn by this to distinguish superficiality from depth, bias from objectivity, tendentiousness from honesty, stupidity from discernment, and confusion from lucidity. In short, a student acquires what is surely an important democratic skill: the ability to think seriously and critically about society and about its affairs.
But for the study of history to have this educative effect, it must not be taught simply as an accumulation of received truths, dead facts, and dry figures. It more closely resembles a series of questions that we put to the past, questions that we then attempt to answer in the present to the best of our abilities. In answering them, we find meaning in corners of the world and insight into what other people have made of their lives.
So my first argument: history may help us refine intellect, ask questions, develop critical powers. This is good, this is one reason to study history. But a gifted teacher of history is not only someone who encourages his students to develop their own powers of criticism, observation, and analysis. Yes, this is work of the mind. And it's important. But in history there is also work of the heart, and work that touches the heart. Catherine Bowen, one of my favorite writers, a wonderful historian, and author of Miracle at Philadelphia, A Lion and the Throne, and Yankee from Olympus, once had, as she described it, a professional identity crisis. She once came close to despairing of her craft as writer of history. She thought, because some fellow historians told her so, that she was too involved with her material, too much of a romantic. She confided her concerns and her worries to her friend the great Bernard De Voto. And he wrote back to her: "Dear Katie, if the mad, impossible voyage of Columbus or Cartier or La Salle or Coronado is not romantic, if the stars did not dance in the sky when our Constitutional Convention met, if Atlantis has any landscape stranger or the other side of the moon any lights or colors or shapes more unearthly than the customary homespun of Lincoln and the morning coat of Jackson, well, I don't know what romance is. Our story is a story mad with romance. Mad with the impossible. It began as a dream and it has continued as a dream down to the last headlines you read in the newspaper. . . . The simplest truth, Katie, you can ever write about our history will be charged and surcharged with romanticism, and if you are afraid of the word, then Katie, you had better give up your craft, and start practicing seriously on your fiddle." In teaching American history then, we must never lose sight of the fact that we are telling a story sometimes a tragic story, sometimes a joyous story, but always a great story, always a story "mad with the impossible." So history, second argument, to paraphrase Faulkner, is for the heart, and not just for the glands and the cerebrum.
History is a means of developing judgment and good sense. It is as well an engaging human story. And yet, it is more. If our students lack knowledge of history, they lack a great deal. There are things from history, from the study of history, that they should simply know. What should they know? This is one of the questions many do not wish to answer. But let me try. Among other things I think our students should know who said "I am the State" and who said "I have a dream." They should know about the Donner Party and about slavery; they should know about Abigail Adams, and why there is a Berlin Wall. They should know something about the Convention of 1787 and about the conventions of good behavior. They should know what greatness looks like and how greatness crumbles, dies, and then sometimes rises again. They should recognize famous American names like Aaron Burr and John C. Calhoun, and James Fenimore Cooper, and Dorothea Dix, and Stephen A. Douglas and Frederick Douglass, Jonathan Edwards, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. They should be familiar with the Battle Hymn of the Republic, the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, John Kennedy's Inaugural Address, Lincoln's Second Inaugural, and the Gettysburg Address. And they should not be strangers to certain words, words like "We hold these truths," "These are the times that try men's souls," "I have not yet begun to fight," "A house divided against itself cannot stand," and "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." These are things they should know. These are things that history can teach them.
But there is yet one more argument for history. It is the argument that Leszek Kolakowski identified in his Jefferson Lecture last year when he said: "To learn history is to learn and to know who we are, it is to learn why and for what we are responsible," and it is to learn how this responsibility is to be taken up. In other words, history in Kolakowski's view is nothing less than a source of personal identity itself, a means of acquiring a sense of "connectedness" with a tradition, with a community, with a past. It is a way of locating ourselves in time and space, of acquiring the values and ideals by which we wish to live our lives, and of returning to the wellsprings of our being as a people and as a nation. And the current "erosion of a historically defined sense of belonging," Kolakowski warns, "plays havoc" with the lives of young people, it "threatens their ability to withstand possible trials of the future." I think Kolakowski is right.
Acquiring this "historically defined sense of belonging" is especially important here in the United States. For strictly speaking, the United States did not simply develop; rather, the United States was created in order to realize a specific political vision. Today, as in the past, it is the memory of that political vision that defines us as Americans. Memory is the glue that holds our political community together, and history is organized memory for the living. By studying American history, and yes, by celebrating its heroes for each generation, noting its failures as well as its achievements, our students are invited to grasp the value of our political tradition and to do nothing less than to know themselves in their polity.
A few questions, ladies and gentlemen: Do our students realize that they are the heirs of the Greeks, the Hebrews, the Romans, and the early Christians who invented Western civilization? Does today's social studies curriculum bring them into contact with that "great cloud of witnesses," as St. Paul called them, who encourage us "to run with patience this race that is set before us?" Are we confident that the principles of the Founders, the traditions embodied in our institutions, the memories of our forefathers' sacrifices, the examples of our statesmen will be alive in the next generation's minds and hearts? Are we confident of that? I do not think we can be as confident as we should be. But it is not our students' fault.
Please, do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that American history is all sweetness and light it is far from that. I am saying, however, that running through our nation's history like a golden thread are certain ideals and certain aspirations. What are they? Well, we the people, all of us, believe in liberty and equality. We believe in limited government and in the betterment of the human condition. These truths underlie both our history and our society; they define us as a people; and while they may be self evident, they are not spontaneously apprehended by the young. The young must be taught these things, and at the same time they should learn that a large part of the world thinks and acts according to other principles and other things.
So in closing, I would say this: our students, our young citizens are the heirs of a precious historical legacy. Let it never be said of us that we failed as a nation because we neglected to pass on this legacy to our children, to all of them. Remember that whatever their ancestry of blood, they are all, we are all, equally heirs of the same tradition. In a fundamental sense we all have the same fathers our Founding Fathers. Let it be said that we told our children their story, the whole story, the long record of our glories, our failures, our aspirations, our sins, our achievements, and our victories. Then let us leave it to them to determine their own view of it all: America in the totality of its acts. If we can dedicate ourselves to that endeavor, I'm confident that our students will discern in history and the story of their past the truth. They will cherish that truth. And that truth will keep them free, and that is yet one more reason we study history here, here in America. So, let us go to it.