History deserves our attention

Recently, someone sent me an article about how American students are less proficient in their nation’s history than in any other subject.

It doesn’t come as a surprise. Look around you. There are so many more important things to pay attention to that it’s a wonder anyone learns to write with a pencil any more.

Our kids are awash in technology. They hardly remember what a land line is. They don’t even really call very often. They text-message. They are as quick as the Old West gunfighters on the trigger with the electronic equivalent of a shutter button on those cellphones. Something interesting happening at school or on the street? They’ve got video of it and in five minutes it will be on a million other cellphones.

Americans weren’t strong in history even when I was a kid, when phones were just starting to change colors from black. We’ve always been a big uppity. We dont really know and don’t really care about the rest of the world because, at least until China started meeting our daily needs, we were pretty self-sufficient here in America, isolated from most everybody else by two oceans.

We were always right, so why should we spend a lot of time thinking about the past? There are plenty of other things to think about, particularly if you’re young.

A report a few years ago suggested that 8.5 percent of today’s youngsters are clinically addicted to playing video games. Those kids aren’t interested in anything else. Their dream job is to test or develop new video games.

Think about that.

Now think about this: How important is history? Why should a fourth-grader know why Abraham Lincoln was an important figure in our country? Why should high school seniors be able to identify China as the North Korean ally that fought American troops during the Korean War? How important is it for eighth-graders to be able to identify an advantage American forces had over the British during the Revolution?

In the article sent me, written by Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe, Jacoby notes how Newsweek earlier this year administered the official U.S. citizenship test (the one foreigners take when they want to become Americans) to native 1,000 Americans earlier this year.

Thirty-three percent of respondents didn’t know when the Declaration of Independence was adopted, 65 percent couldn’t say what happened at the Constitutional Convention, and 80 percent had no idea who was president during World War I. Jacoby also notes that in a survey of 14,000 college students in 2006, more than half couldn’t identify the century when the first American colony was founded at Jamestown, the reason NATO was organized, or which document says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’’

That last one was the Declaration of Independence, by the way.

Is it important to know that our forefathers decided that men naturally are entitled to certain rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – and why? If you live in Oregon and have noticed the signs marking people’s property lines, it would seem important.

History is the story of humanity. It is the recounting of what has happened in the past, and – surprise – a lot of it is worth paying attention to. Every conflict, every social trend, every mistake, every success has a lesson for us.

As Americans, though, we tend to be very self-absorbed. That “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is something we take very seriously, even if we don’t know exactly where that phrase comes from. It’s why we know we can’t (legally) be arrested without probable cause. It’s why we don’t have to worry about people finding out what medicines we’re taking.

It’s also why, unfortunately, I think, we don’t tend to care very much about how we got this way. And that’s a shame, because, as the political journalist Norman Cousins once said, “History is a vast early warning system.”

History, as another saying goes, repeats itself. That’s why it’s important to know it, to study it.

I know for a fact, since I have two kids who have gone through a challenging AP History course at Sweet Home High School, that there is still history being taught.

They know about some of the successes and some of the failures that have made our world what it is today.

But you don’t have to take a class like AP History to bring yourself up to speed, though. Got to the library. Get your kids involved in the summer reading program at the library (see page 6). Read or watch videos about the past together. Watch PBS or the History Channel. Even though a lot of the programming on the latter is fluffy, you can still learn a lot of interesting things about the past.

Learning history opens our eyes to a lot of things. Having a grasp of the past can help us understand the processes and sequences of events that create the situations we find ourselves in, such as severe recession. It helps us understand why the rest of the world views us the way they do. And, since history really does tend to repeat itself, reviewing the past might give us some clues to what might be coming in the future.

That’s why it’s important.