America's schools are in crisis, particularly in the teaching of history. At a recent Senate hearing, it was disclosed that more than half of our high school seniors have less than a "basic" knowledge of our nation's past. This is particularly alarming because -- if my memory of high school serves me -- "basic" knowledge was what was taught in those classes composed of the kids who beat you up at lunchtime.
Better-than-"basic" knowledge of the Civil War: Riven by intractable economic and social differences, the North and South took to combat in a bloody, four-year test of wills upon which rested the survival of the modern world's first representative democracy and of the ideals of personal freedom and human dignity upon which it was founded.
"Basic" knowledge of the Civil War: Abraham Lincoln winned.
So, clearly, this is a problem.
My theory is that our kids are not failing history; history is failing our kids -- it's just not interesting enough. Fortunately, our own government has provided an exciting template to deal with this problem. The solution is as obvious as the solution to the problem of not finding any weapons of mass destruction. Change history!
The War of Independence
Old history lesson: The American Colonies revolted against England because of taxes.
Problem: Taxes are boring.
New history lesson: The American Colonies revolted against England because of nude, sunbathing sluts. Also, we wanted to ftop fpeaking like fthissies.
The Monroe Doctrine
Old history lesson: Feeling the United States' hegemony threatened by continued French and Spanish interest in colonizing the New World, President James Monroe laid out a clear warning to European powers that any effort to extend their influence into the Americas would be seen as a threat to the United States, and would be met with appropriate resistance. This established a precedent for forceful American foreign policy, a national attitude that resonates today.
New history lesson: If Frenchie tries,
'Den Frenchie fries.
(Jus' ain't gon' happen,
'Cause we gon' put a cap in
Old history lesson: Faced with the challenge of rebuilding the war-ravaged South, the federal government was torn between those seeking retribution and those seeking reconciliation. The process proved extremely contentious, resulting in the ascendancy of carpetbaggers and the rise of violent secret societies that worked against the establishment of racial equality. Eventually, justice and fairness prevailed.
Problem: Huh? Wha?
New history lesson: Abraham Lincoln winned.
The Industrial Revolution
Old history lesson: Fueled by greed and new technologies, America became the world's economic leader, but at a terrible cost. With the rise of the robber baron came the dehumanization of the labor force and the institutionalization of draconian working conditions, resulting in human tragedies but eventually leading to bold social reforms that would make our standard of living the envy of the world.
Problem: "Dehumanization"? "Institutionalization"? "Draconian"? Why not just teach it in Greek?
New history lesson: Imagine Angelina Jolie, on fire, leaping out the ninth-floor window of a burning sweatshop, where she has to work in her underwear because of the heat. She jumps because Dennis Hopper, the evil owner, locked her in! Muhahahaha. In the end, she has sex with Jake Gyllenhaal, the New York City firefighter who caught her.
The Stock Market Crash
Old history lesson: Loose rules governing investments and the handling of securities result in rampant buying on margin and other unwise speculation. The overheated economy collapses in one day. This is compounded by the government's reluctance to take ameliorative action, sending the country into a Depression that would last nearly a decade.
Problem: Complicated. Depressing.
New history lesson: Now Dennis jumps out the window. He slams into the pavement at 200 mph, like a Hefty bag filled with minestrone soup.
Unfortunately, this one can stay pretty much the same.
Gene Weingarten's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon at www.washingtonpost.com.