September 16, 2005

"Declining (x) literacy"

Now that Constitution Day is nearly upon us (tomorrow, folks, the 218th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution, not that its signing had much historical significance—quick, what was the criterion for ratification?), the New York Times has its obligatory obeisance-and-reflection, which turns out to be a bunch of historically-unreflective pap about "historical literacy:"

The new law takes effect as many historians are voicing alarm over the dimming historical memory of the nation.

James Rees, executive director of George Washington's Mount Vernon estate, said that in his 22-year tenure he has seen a growing historical ignorance among visitors. ...

Some educators believe that young people's history proficiency is declining because they watch too much television,...

Some experts say the problem is worsening because history and civics are receiving less attention in public schools, the result of a nationwide focus on reading and math.... (emphases added)

One of the great signs of historical ignorance is when people take on one of the great trend-y myths of popular belief, like the myth of declension. Whoops. Looks like Sam Dillon, the reporter for the Times, catered to that myth in the article. While Americans may not know enough of their own history, I doubt that such ignorance is greater now than at any time in the past, except maybe September 17, 1787, when there was very little national history to regurgitate on standardized tests.

Moreover, the usual definition of "historical literacy" is focused on fragmentary bits of information that look remarkably like trivia. In the case of the Times article, the obligatory quiz question was the commander of colonial forces at Yorktown in 1781 (hint: not William Sherman, Ulysses Grant, or Douglas Macarthur). While I'd like folks to have a clue to who was the commander, I'd also like them to know a little more: why the battle was important and who else was involved besides the colonials and the royalists, for starters.

As historian of education Harvey Graff has noted, we use the word literacy when we want a trump card to tout the importance of a topic, even though any particular literacy concept is historically contingent and constructed. To add to computer literacy, economic literacy, math literacy, physics literacy, among others, we now have historical literacy. Postmodernists should be so happy, that we are constantly commanded to read the world in so many areas.

Posted by sdorn at September 16, 2005 05:53 AM | | TrackBack