WASHINGTON, DC, Mar 22, 2016 – Louise Mirrer, President and CEO of the New-York Historical Society, is focused on the history deficit among American students.
“American history is no longer required in many high schools throughout the country. This means that large numbers of Americans graduate without even the most basic sense of what it means to be an American. That is a huge deficit.”
Many of our schools appear to have decided that history is unimportant, according to Mirrer. Sometimes, this is an effect of the sense that science and technology are more practical areas of knowledge, especially in the 21st century, and that a focus on STEM education [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math] can only come at the expense of other disciplines.
According to a recent survey by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, fewer than 200 liberal arts colleges and universities require students to take a course in American history or government. “Over a long period of time, colleges and universities have increasingly emphasized skills-based education over knowledge of the humanities. These institutions fail to see the importance to their students of knowing–and being touched by–the history of their country. Americans who understand this country’s long tradition of openness to newcomers, its tradition of providing opportunity to all, its long struggle for freedom, equality and civil rights will be better equipped to act as responsible citizens, especially in today’s dangerous global environment that fosters anti-Western and anti-democratic movements.”
Mirrer says that U.S. history is not only important in terms of developing a sense of civic-mindedness for future years, but also for developing a life-long sense of American values that will thwart extremist views and anti-democratic thinking and ideas that we hear so much about today.
“Learning U.S. history also makes for interesting and thought-provoking content as young people learn to read, write, and think critically. If you have nothing to think or write about, how can you ever learn?”
Younger Americans who lack an understanding of America’s founding principles will not succeed in understanding or internalizing the importance of civic duty–such as voting, serving on juries, serving in the military, and so on, Mirrer stresses. “They will not know how hard-won American privileges have been, and they will not reflect on how easy it is to lose them.They will not recognize the shortcomings of those whose values have strayed from our tradition of equality and human rights.”
Mirrer is also on the panel of judges for the Grateful American Book Prize, an award designed to recognize authors and publishers who produce works of fiction and non-fiction that can engage young learners in the eras, events and personalities that have shaped the U.S. It is an attempt to inspire students to learn about America’s heritage and traditions.
“Such private sector initiatives as the Prize are important if we are to revitalize an interest in the history of our country,” she says. “Meanwhile, teacher education programs should ensure the best-quality programs. Government and private support for excellence in history teaching should be revived. Leadership at colleges and universities as well as elected officials should stress the struggles our nation has endured, and the successes it has achieved.”
Individual teachers can take measures, as well. For example, they can partner with local museums that can provide visual, documentary, and hands-on opportunities to enhance history lessons, Mirrer suggests. How young is too young to begin encouraging an interest in U.S. history? “At the New-York Historical Society, we teach ‘history habits of the mind’ to toddlers. It is never too young to learn our nation’s history.”